BWW Review: A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION at Connecticut Repertory Theatre
When the holiday season comes around it often brings with it staples of holiday theater - from Ebenezer Scrooge learning how to care for something other than money, Charlie Brown hearing from his friend Linus the true meaning of Christmas, or the Grinch increasing the size of his heart, theatergoers often are limited to old favorites for the season. That is why it is refreshing that the Connecticut Repertory Theater at UConn chose this year to offer a lesser known, yet equally poignant holiday tale with its current production of Paula Vogel's A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION. The production offers a set of stories that many may not have heard before with familiar (and not so familiar) music by Daryl Waters.
A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS tells a series of tales, all set on Christmas Eve, 1864, a few short months before the official end of the Civil War. Through a series of vignettes, some of which have bearing on each other, the audience is introduced to a wide cast of characters (played by a small cast of actors) who range from the familiar (Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth) to the not so familiar (Decatur Bronson, Elizabeth Keckley). The action focuses primarily on Washington D.C. and its surrounding area and bounces between the White House and President and Mrs. Lincoln (Rob Barnes and Erin Cessna) as they plan their own holiday festivities under the backdrop of the conflict that has torn the country apart. We also meet a Union Sergeant, Decatur Bronson (Forrest McClendon) and his brigade of African American soldiers and hear their tales of the war and its impact on their lives. An escaped slave mother, Hannah (Angela Hunt) and her young daughter Jessa (DeAnna Hepple) also figure prominently as they try to make their way north to a better life. The audience also witnesses the journey of a fateful Christmas tree to the White House and beyond, meets a motley bunch of conspirators (including one John Wilkes Booth (Nikolai Fernandez)), and learns about the fate of a number of other individuals on this cold December night.
While Paula Vogel's script for A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS has some poignant and touching moments, it does cover a lot of ground and can, at times be a bit confusing. Since so much action is packed into the two hour and 15 minute run time, there is not much time to absorb what is happening before it moves on to the next vignette. Complicating things are the multiple characters played by the actors on stage. One moment someone might be one character and without much differentiation (removal of a coat, addition of a hat) they are someone altogether different. This did cause this reviewer to be a bit lost from time to time. The script could likely have been focused a bit more (removing a few of the storylines) and still accomplished the overall goal. Elizabeth Van Dyke's direction has a few strong moments, but due to the fast-paced script and the volume of stories to be told, it, too, suffers. Because the actors must differentiate between multiple characters this also leads to some choices that end up coming across as heavy handed or comical - likely not the intended effect.
From an acting standpoint, there are a few standout performances in A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS. Forrest McClendon gives the strongest of these performances, bringing raw emotion and a nuanced delivery that provides a palpable energy whenever he is on stage. Erin Cessna, shines as Mary Todd Lincoln, delivering a truly conflicted first lady, and as her friend and confidant Elizabeth Keckley, Alex Campbell does a good job. Angela Hunt, as the desperate mother, Hannah brings a real emotional quality to her performance as well.
The music for A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, by Daryl Waters, is a mix of familiar carols, civil war songs and spirituals. There are moments where these songs work quite nicely into a particular scene and others where the placement of the song seems a bit forced. The musical performances in this production are decent with a few standout musical moments. Paul Feyer serves as Musical Director and creates the strongest of these moments whenever the full cast is involved. Anna Brewster's scenic design is simple, yet effective and Corey Brittain's period costumes work very well, particularly the beautiful hoop-skirted dresses of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley. Sound design by Mitchell Prescott is solid as is Matt Lazarus' lighting.
Overall, A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: A MUSICAL CELEBRATION has enough moments to make it worth seeing, especially if one has an interest in history and the music of the time. It is slower and darker than most holiday fare (which works for the setting of the play) and, as noted earlier, can get a little confusing, but is not without its uplifting moments where the power of community and the ability of human kindness to shine through, even in the darkest of days, is on display.
A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION by the Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) runs at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the campus of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT through December 9. Evening performances start at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Matinee performances start at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. For ticket information or to purchase tickets by phone, call 860.486.2113. To purchase tickets online, visit www.crt.uconn.edu.
Top Photo Credit - L to R: Erin Cessna (Mary Todd Lincoln), Aaron Bantum (Walker Lewis), Bryan Mittelstadt (Ulysses S Grant), Rob Barnes (Abraham Lincoln) and Deanna Hepple (Jessa) in A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION by Paula Vogel, Music by Daryl Waters, onstage through December 9 at Connecticut Repertory Theatre. Info at crt.uconn.edu or 860-486-2113. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Mid Photo #1 - Forrest McClendon (Decatur Bronson) and Tabatha Gayle (Rose) in A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION by Paula Vogel, Music by Daryl Waters, onstage through December 9 at Connecticut Repertory Theatre. Info at crt.uconn.edu or 860-486-2113. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Mid-Photo #2 - Carly Polistina (Mary Surratt) and Erin Cessna (Mary Todd Lincoln) in A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION by Paula Vogel, Music by Daryl Waters, onstage through December 9 at Connecticut Repertory Theatre. Info at crt.uconn.edu or 860-486-2113. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Bottom Photo Credit - Rob Barnes (Lincoln) and Nikolai Fernandez, Tristan Rewald, Pearl Matteson (Consiprators) in A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION by Paula Vogel, Music by Daryl Waters, onstage through December 9 at Connecticut Repertory Theatre. Info at crt.uconn.edu or 860-486-2113. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.