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.