The Civil War
Apr. 12 at Jackson Hall, TPAC
Enthusiastic crowds packed into TPAC’s spacious Jackson Hall last week to experience The Civil War. This musical extravaganza, celebrating the common man’s point of view on the nation’s greatest internal conflict, is now making the rounds of a national tour. It first opened in Houston in 1997, went on to play Broadway in the spring of 1999 (receiving three Tony nominations), and also spurred two CD releases.
It’s important to note that in no way does The Civil War resemble traditional notions of musical theater. There is little script to speak of; in fact, it is even less a musical revue than it is a musical concert. One after another, the 27 songs of Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlett Pimpernel)who cowrote the text with Greg Boyd and Jack Murphyare passionately delivered by an enthusiastic and, in some cases, extraordinarily gifted cast of vocalists. The lead roles are filled by one of Music City’s erstwhile favorite sons, Larry Gatlin, and by soul and gospel recording artist BeBe Winans.
Apparently, the authors of the show were inspired by trips they had made to various Civil War battlefields. They were also struck by the idea that some of popular culture’s most prominent Civil War-based vehicles (e.g., Gone With the Wind) have never really focused directly on the war itself. Further inspired by Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentary series on the war, Wildhorn and company decided that a musical tribute was in orderone that would salute the ordinary men and women who suffered through the conflict.
Consequently, aside from one number that deifies Abraham Lincoln (”Candle in the Window“), no well-known historical figures are mentioned. Instead, the material is presented as the experiences of soldiers both Blue and Gray, slaves, and the families who waited on the home front. Along with pertinent archival photography, the more factual databattle sites and dates, casualty counts, etc.are presented in the form of front-screen projections, which add a high-tech gloss to the show. (One problem here: The Battle of Murfreesboro, alternatively known as the Battle of Stones River, is unforgivably cited as the Battle of Stone River. This is the kind of thing that drives Civil War fanatics up the wall, and it seems notoriously lax in a show devoted to the subject. )
Composer Wildhorn has attempted to span a range of musical styles. He is more or less successful conjuring modes of rock, pop, R&B, gospel, folk, and country, though it can be argued that most of the songs fall into the category of vague country-popit sounds as though the cast might launch into Lee Greenwood’s ”I’m Proud to Be an American“ at any moment.
Gatlin is pretty good in his role as a Confederate captain who endures the ravages of war. He takes part in no less than 11 numbers, plays his guitar competently, and struts with macho pride throughout, hitting his high-water mark with Act 1’s ”Old Gray Coat.“ He is matched well by his Union counterpart, played by Michael Lanning, who similarly sings with the deep, wounded feelings of a soldier under siege.
Winans, Moses Braxton Jr., Keith Byron Kirk, and Roy Richardson Jr. form a powerful quartet of male slave voices, which are used to stirring effect in tunes such as ”Peculiar Institution,“ ”Freedom’s Child,“ ”Father, How Long,“ and ”River Jordan.“ Even more admirable are the vocal skills of the women playing the female slaves, Debra Winans, Marlayna Sims, and Carolyn Saxon. Their voices simply shimmer throughout, but especially in the Act 1 finale, ”Someday,“ the only true gospel tune in the show.
Nashville studio singer Mike Eldred and the youthful Amy Rutberg share four numbers as a soldier and his wife separated by smoke and battle. They handle their chores capably if unspectacularly.
Amid some tricky lighting effects and broad, heroic settings, Stephen Rayne’s direction is certainly suitable; though without much script, there is little to direct, and there’s no dancing to speak of either. The overall effect is that of an Americana-style revue, the cast relentlessly launching into one number after the other. A seven-piece band lingers in the background, turning out smooth, uniformly conjured arrangements.
A few out-of-place modernistic touches such as headset microphones on all the players, and fellow singers high-fiving each other after a well-executed musical numberit’s supposed to be 1863, after alldidn’t seem to bother the audience, which gave the show a rousing and heartfelt standing ovation last Wednesday night. Who are we to argue with success?
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