Correction: Earlier versions of this review of “Rappahannock County” misspelled the first name of its multimedia designer, Wendall Harrington. This version has been corrected.
NORFOLK — Shots were fired at Fort Sumter 150 years ago Tuesday night, sparking the conflagration of the Civil War. This anniversary was commemorated here in a work of music theater that represented yet another well-meaning olive branch from North to South and may have unwittingly ruffled some feathers in the manner of its 19th-century antecedents.
The piece in question, “Rappahannock County,” which opened this year’s Virginia Arts Festival (through June 20), is a staged song cycle: a sequence of songs presented as a theatrical work (directed by Kevin Newbury) with the aid of a few costume changes and a lot of projections on a scrim across the back of the stage. It was written by two Yankees, Ricky Ian Gordon and Mark Campbell. And its blithe message seemed to be that everything — racial tensions, the pain and death of battle, long-standing political resentments — could be remedied with song. The plot summary, in a nutshell: War happens, people are hurt, the South is left devastated, but the blacks are free, and the river rolls on. Tra-la.
It didn’t have to be so lightweight. A lot of research went into this piece, which is filled with historical vignettes — literally so, since the action is dominated by projected photographs and images (designed by Wendall Harrington) ranging from contemporary engravings to landscape shots. The idea is to create a patchwork of the Civil War seen not through historical events but through the experiences of the individuals who lived it, portrayed by five performers in a variety of roles including the slave woman who is at a loss now that the white family she devoted her life to has fled, and the wounded teenage soldier bleeding to death on a snowy battlefield. The piece was assembled in consultation with Edward L. Ayers, the president of the University of Richmond, a historian and a Civil War specialist. Its facts ring true, and it carries the viewer through each of the war’s five years (1861-65) at a rapid pace.
It’s historically accurate but it feels facile, light, tossed off. Campbell writes a fine, glib lyric, but doesn’t get as much mileage as he might out of each line; though the piece was short, the songs felt verbose. “Being small ain’t all that bad. / Being small got some advantages. / You get to go where others can’t. / You get to know what others can’t”: We’ve gotten through the whole first verse and we haven’t yet gotten to the point, which is that the black slave is small enough to crawl under the house and listen to his master reading the newspaper aloud to his wife.
And Gordon took all this purely at face value. Each piece was a pretty song: some balladlike (“I Seen Snow”), some upbeat (“I Listen,” sung by a woman who sells pies to the Yankees and reports their conversations back to her Confederate confederates; she’s like a toned-down version of “Sweeney Todd’s” Mrs. Lovett). The idea may have been to respect the piece’s Southern location by refraining from pointing fingers or taking sides, but the result musically was a relentless prettiness, at an even emotional temperature, without any editorializing even from the orchestra (which sat behind the projection screen, occasionally incorporated into the visuals, led by the redoubtable Rob Fisher, who knows how to give a musical bounce). There’s a lot of suffering in “Rappahannock County” (death, and dying, and mothers losing children) but no villains, no heroes and no moral (except that freeing the slaves was very, very good). War is hell. But hell sure is pretty.
It was a lot of work for the five singers, some more than others. Long, with lots of climaxes, these songs aren’t all well-tailored for the voice, though some of them are rewarding to sing: Kevin Moreno, a baritone, got an ovation when, singing the part of a former slave who’s cynical about just how far this freedom thing is going to go, he mounted a table and sang of “the day they name me president!” His voice sounded strained, nonetheless, as did that of Matthew Tuell, the tenor, who had to take on several roles in quick succession right at the start of the piece, from a Southern politician to a disaffected schoolteacher to an eager telegraph operator, and never quite recovered.
More confident was Mark Walters, with a rich, dark baritone. The two women, though, owned the show. The mezzo Faith Sherman brought zip to a range of Southern-lady personae, though some of the songs took her higher than was comfortable for her. And Aundi Marie Moore showed a shining soprano in the most audience-friendly assignments: a range of slave and former-slave parts.
Taken as a commemoration, “Rappahannock County” was more palatable than some: history with a sugar coating of pretty pictures and harmless melodies. What it may have missed was the urgency and pain of issues that to many here are still very much alive, but that here seemed to have been injected with the embalmer’s fluid used by one of the characters in the musical: smooth-skinned, pink-cheeked, preserved for posterity, but doing its best to mask the wounds beneath.