BWW Reviews: Main Street Theater's A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION is Brilliantly Crafted and Deeply Moving
Every year, the holiday season is marked by gooey, theatrical mind-candy confections. The syrupy and saccharine spectacles fill audiences with joy and boil pots all over town. Yet, for 2013 Main Street Theater is taking a bold risk and producing the brilliantly crafted and deeply moving Houston Premiere of A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION by Paula Vogel, with music by Daryl Waters. The play is not the light-hearted, feel-good fare audiences have come to expect; however, I defy anyone to walk away from a performance without feeling moved and permanently altered.
Simply put, Paula Vogel's writing for A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION is decadent. Set in and around Washington D.C. in 1864, she masterfully blends together the stories of the nation's most influential and most commonplace, as each and every citizen bundles up to face the coldest Christmas Eve in years. From opening to close, Paula Vogel's plot is perfectly structured and her economy of words adds thematic richness in abundance. Allusions and parallels to story of Jesus Christ and even our own modern struggles leave the audience spellbound and riveted by the performance. Every word in the production serves a purpose and adds to the power and majesty of the tale she spins, breaking our hearts, making us reflect on our blessings, and inspiring us to work to improve the world we live in. Paula Vogel's A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRTION is a sumptuous feast of artistry and skill that moves audiences through many emotions without leaving a single dry eye in the house.
Directing the production, Troy Scheid marries Paula Vogel's impressive script with excellent directorial decisions that allow the work to profoundly resonate with audiences during and long after the performance. Every decision she makes, from assembling an accomplished cast to creating haunting stage images, is executed with splendid precision. From the time the cast takes the stage to welcome us to the production until the plots are fully resolved and the house lights come up at the end of the show, there is not a single moment that drags. Just like the writing, Troy Scheid's direction is taut and thoroughly engrossing.
Regarding the cast, this troupe of actors and actresses are just phenomenal in this production. With the exception of the young ladies that alternate playing Jessa, each and every member of the cast inhabits the persona of a varied assortment of characters. Together, the cast mesmerizes as they swiftly glide in and out of different roles without ever confusing the audience. Each member of the cast adorns themselves with different pieces of clothing, changes their vocal cadence and accent, and even their physicality to aid the audience in being able to distinguish their different characters. From child to adult, there is not a single weak link in the cast, which makes the performance all the more remarkable.
Despite the ensemble nature of the production, a few portrayals affected me more than others and have truly stayed with me for days after viewing the performance. These standouts include Rachel H. Dickson's dignified seamstress Elizabeth Keckley and compassionate Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas, Jon L. Egging's motivated and unnerving John Wilkes Booth, Brittany Halen's tour de force delivery of the charismatic and ebullient Raz, Shawn Hamilton's hardened Decatur Bronson who earns unyielding sympathy from the audience, Liliane Moon's gut wrenching performance as Jessa, Joe Kirkendall's warm and caring Abraham Lincoln and his elegiac embodiment of poet Walt Whitman, Crystal Rae's ever hopeful Hannah, Susan Shofner's pristinely heartrending performance as Mary Todd Lincoln that unflinchingly and honestly portrays Mrs. Lincoln's struggles with both mania and depression, and Zack Varela's heartbreaking portrayal of Moses Levy. In all sincerity, every time I mentally return to the production three moments truly stand out above the rest. They are the beautifully depressing agony delivered by Susan Shofner as Mary Todd Lincoln as she is turned away from Zack Varela's dying Moses Levy, the company's impressive performance of "Follow the Drinking Gourd," and the breathtaking final confrontation between Shawn Hamilton's Decatur Bronson and Brittany Halen's Raz weaved together with Rachel H. Dickson's Elizabeth Keckley desperately pleading with Brandon Balque's George's Ghost.
Technically, the show is solid as well. Ryan McGettigan's Set Design is sparsely detailed, which allows it to be incredibly versatile. Small elements embellish the bared wood frames to give a sense of location, but the minimalist yet intricate design never gets in the way of the actors or their deliveries of the emotionally charged and thought provoking words. Eric L. Marsh's Lighting Design dances with the cast as they move about the stage, illuminating different portions for the various scenes. Colors are used sparingly over the cast; however, his upstage cyclorama alternates between realistic representations of the setting sun and emotionally appropriate hues for the scenes unfolding before the audience. The quietly understated aspects of the design only serve to bolster the production and never get in the way.
Macy Lyne's Costume Design dresses the cast is period specific pieces that can be altered or changed out easily as they shift from character to character. Many of the costumes are dyed in dark hues, making the colorful pieces more visible. This is particularly effective in scenes with Jessa, making her and her plight standout more to the audience on a visual level. Rodney Walsworth Properties Design is also period appropriate, and nothing in his work stands out as being out of place. Lastly, Michael Mertz's Sound Design is crisp, ensuring that music, lyrics, and spoken dialogue are all heard in the intimate venue. His most affective touch is the sound of cold wind blowing across an open field that is sparingly used in the production.
Main Street Theater's Houston Premiere of Paula Vogel's A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION, with music by Daryl Waters, is an intoxicating and invigorating breath of fresh air. It proudly and confidently defies the stereotyped merriment and cheerful disposition of typical holiday shows, offering something meaty and substantial for audiences. The creative and skillful work from every person involved in the production ensures that it is a theatrical experience not to be missed.
A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION, produced by Main Street Theater, plays Main Street Theater - Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose Boulevard, Houston, 77006 now through December 29, 2013. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.mainstreettheater.com or call (713) 524-6706.
All photos by RicOrnelProductions.com. Courtesy of Main Street Theater.
Members of the cast of A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION.
Susan Shofner & Zack Varela with members of the cast of A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION.
The cast of A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION.
Rachel H. Dickson & Susan Shofner.
Joe Kirkendall & Susan Shofner.
L to R: Jonathan Teverbaugh, Shawn Hamilton & Brittany Halen.
Brittany Halen & Jon L. Egging with members of the cast of A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION.