BWW Review: A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS Reaches Back 150 Years to Bring Us a New, More Nuanced Holiday Story, at Artists Rep

BWW Review: A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS Reaches Back 150 Years to Bring Us a New, More Nuanced Holiday Story, at Artists Rep

Holiday shows can be pretty cliche -- someone learns the true meaning of Christmas and then everyone breaks into song. Now, don't get me wrong, I look forward to watching Mickey's Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (cartoon version) every year. But during a time when new societal fault lines seem to open up every day, we need a different story.

And that's exactly what Paula Vogel's A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION gives us. Don't be afraid of the title. This isn't a musical homage to the good old days before women had the right to vote or a glorification of the deadliest war in American history to date. It's a show about who we are, where we came from, and how far we have to go.

A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS takes place mostly on the night of Christmas Eve, 1864, after President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but before he was assassinated. It tells many stories -- of Mary Todd Lincoln's emotional struggles, of a blacksmith plotting revenge against the people who kidnapped his wife, of a former slave and her daughter's escape to the North, and of John Wilkes Booth and his confederates' plans to kidnap the President. And that's only a few of them. There are many characters in the show, representing different races, religions, and backgrounds -- and each one has a story. The effect is a rich snapshot of American history at a time, like now, when the country was in considerable disarray.

It's a musical, sort of. The score blends traditional Christmas carols, spirituals, and folk songs with new music from Tony Award-winning composer and orchestrator Daryl Waters. For the Portland production, Artists Rep got special permission to commission new arrangements for much of the material, so the score for this production is a collaborative effort between eight local artists, including James Beaton, Darrell Grant, and Edna Vasquez. In true local spirit, Makers from Art Design Portland and Portland Apparel Lab also designed pieces for the show.

To top it all off, the cast list reads like a Who's Who of Portland theatre -- Susannah Mars, Vin Shambry, Val Landrum, and the list goes on.

The show has its challenges. There are several storylines as well as 21 named characters, and probably twice that number who go unnamed -- all played by 15 actors in a series of mostly very short scenes that move from reality to flashback to dream sequence so constantly that it's difficult to keep it all straight. I recommend two things to help you cope here. First, take the time to read the short bios of the characters in the program -- they will provide context. Then, just relax and stop worrying about it -- even if you don't know who everyone is at all times, you'll still be able to follow the overall story arc, which is arguably much more important than the plight of any one particular character. Also, don't expect everything to wrap up neatly at the end. These are real people's lives, and they don't end when the lights go down.

The music is also at times uneven, particularly in the moments when the different arrangers' work is overlaid one on top of the other and when the entire cast is singing/playing instruments/beatboxing all at the same time. It's a grand vision! But sometimes there's just too much going on.

There are also many highlights. First, Crystal Ann Munoz, who played somewhere between three and seven different characters and shone in every role. She was also in my hands-down favorite scene, in which Decatur Bronson (the revenge-plotting blacksmith, played by the exquisite Vin Shambry) proposes to his soon-to-be-kidnapped wife, Rose (Ms. Munoz). I could have watched that one scene several times over and been charmed every time.

Second, Amy Hakanson, who every time she came on stage was playing a different instrument. She was like the glue that held everything together. Ayanna Berkshire, an ART Resident Artist who has been in many shows over the past few years, is at her finest in this one as the seamstress Elizabeth Keckley. And Kai Tomizawa is fantastic as Raz, a young boy who runs off to join the army with his horse Sliver (played by John San Nicolas).

Finally, on the musical front, I particularly loved the renditions of "Maryland, My Maryland" (the official state song of Maryland to the tune of "O Christmas Tree") sung by Val Landrum (who I'm now convinced can do anything) and the achingly beautiful "What Child Is This?"

But perhaps the best part about this show is the ending, which is a happy one (it's a Christmas show, after all). It gives us hope that even though our society is deeply divided, we might be able to get past -- or at least put aside -- our differences and come together in peace (and, yes, song).

A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION runs through December 23. Info and tickets here.

Photo credit: Owen Carey

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