"A Civil War Christmas"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
Although "A Civil War Christmas" is described as "An American Musical Celebration", it is difficult to categorize this unique and remarkable show, now at Long Wharf. Whatever the appropriate label or genre, this epic piece marks a high point in Paul Vogel’s admirable body of work.
"Epic" is the operable word here. It is a Civil War saga which focuses on Christmas Eve, as Vogel's numerous characters play out their lives in and around Washington DC. Paralleling the traditional Dickens tale (to which Vogel owes a considerable debt), it stresses the theme of innate human decency and goodwill toward men.
Though such a theme can make for a cloying, overly sentimental work, Vogel's people are very real, and she has in fact moved far from the familiar Dickens tale to a war time, thoroughly American, setting. With the Civil War raging on both sides of the Potomac River, Vogel introduces people of all ages, classes, races, and political views. A runaway black slave child meets Abraham Lincoln, conspirators plot Lincoln’s death, a white Confederate boy is captured by a black Union officer. And that's just for starters! At times the scene grows confusing as Vogel's army of characters, like those in a Dosteovsky novel, march across the stage. But no matter. It is an army of believable human beings caught up in the gritty realities of survival.
Every aspect of this production, under the sensitive direction of Tina Landau, contributes to that feeling. Each scene, slipping into the next, is beautifully choreographed, turning gritty moments into a high art form. It is a tour de force for this fine cast of players, each of whom takes on many roles. Though billed as 'An American Musical Celebration', this is no jazzy Broadway show. The music itself is understated, home-grown in feeling, mixing familiar tunes with original incidental music (courtesy of musical director Daryl Waters). In particular, the gospel numbers emphasize the show's innate spirituality. And the simple, rough stage set of James Schuette, Scott Zielinski's often-muted lighting, and Toni-Leslie James authentic costumes all add to the ambience.
Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas" as presented at Long Wharf is a vibrant, jolting departure from the traditional Christmas plays offered this time of year. In all, a memorable experience.
-- -Irene Backalenick
Dec. 9, 2008