Sunday, December 6, 2009

"A Civil War Christmas": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

Paula Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas" was written with her 4-year-old niece in mind and during the first act it shows. The playwright wished to present a heartwarming Christmas story set during a difficult time for our country, but rather than use plot and dialog, which might confuse a youngster, the action is done with simplistic narration. Many new characters are introduced (General Lee, General Grant, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, President Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker and confidant, etc.), and each one of them speaks a word or two and then breaks into a piece of a period song.

This reviewer was itchy through the first act and but for the courtesy of giving a show the full attention it deserves might have left at intermission. He would have missed the point entirely.

In Act Two all the characters begin to tie themselves together, there is a nicely suspenseful search for a lost child, while at the same time John Wilkes Booth is plotting to kidnap the President and Mrs. Lincoln needs to get her Christmas tree back. The finale arrives with great satisfaction, served with a TON of shmaltz, plus some fabulous gospel music. We see that each actor can not only act but some of them can sing their rear ends off.

C. Kelly Wright, who was so terrific in Theatreworks' production of Tony Kushner's "Caroline, or Change," steals the show with her lead on the spiritual "Balm in Gilead," and she has been equally strong throughout the play in her twin roles as Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley and the runaway slave Mrs. Thomas.

Michael A. Shepperd's roles as Decatur Bronson and James Wormley are equally riveting, especially when blacksmith Bronson, whose wife has been kidnapped by retreating Texas Conferedate soldiers, sings "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and ends it with a rap on his anvil that brings the audience to its feet.

Period costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt are particuarly notable, because each character plays multiple roles and many of them are wearing hoop skirts. Sometimes there's no time to get the skirt off when you change from a female to role, so -- just put on a jacket and a hat, as Elizabeth Palmer is seen doing here.

Perhaps the best part of "A Civil War Christmas" is its telling of history from a more African-American perspective. Vogel has done us all a service in filling in a few blanks over which our history books have traditionally glossed. A slave market three blocks from Abe Lincoln's White House? Are you kidding? No.

The show has faults, principal of which is the ponderous Act One. But let us not undervalue the power of the "Awwwwww!" The audience gets to expend one after another at the finale, smiling after each one, and hankies are universally produced and used. Everyone exits smiling. Hey, it's Christmas.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Civil War Christmas" Three Stars with one BANGLE OF PRAISE and one bauble of despair. Act Two is so good, but Act One needs shortening, tightening, and -- what's the opposite of dumbing down, smartening up? -- smartening up the dialog and speeding up the staging. If Act Two pays off so nicely now, imagine how it will impact us once we are sorry Intermission has come?

The BANGLE OF PRAISE is for the music. Vogel, along with Musical Director William Liberatore and Arranger Daryl Waters, take us across many lines of American musical history. The black gospel arrangements, especially, bring excitement and power to the production.

The bauble of despair perhaps lands, quivering, at the feet of director Robert Kelley, who seems more in love with the playwright's history lessons than he is with motion and entertainment. This may be endemic to a smaller stage at Lucie Stern Theater, or may in fact be already on the page. Either way -- they need to do more with less, rather than less with more.

"A Civil War Christmas" feels like it wants to become standard holiday fare. With a little work, it may turn out to be just that.

"A Civil War Christmas"
Lucie Stern Theater
Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through Dec. 27

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