Premieres are always risky business for theatre companies. It’s pertinent for theatre companies, such as Theatreworks, to introduce new works to their audiences but it’s also a huge financial risk. What if it’s just not ready to be seen yet? Well, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas is somewhere in the middle. I don’t think that Theatreworks’ will lose any money on this production (they are actually talking about adding shows during the Christmas week) but A Civil War Christmas has a long way to go before being a cohesive show.
A Civil War Christmas is billed as a play with Christmas music. Classic holiday songs like “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and “The Holly and the Ivy” are sung throughout and often accompanied by guitar, violin, harmonica and even the accordion. It’s not a full-out musical, but it’s more than just a “play with music”. The music in A Civil War Christmas was overlooked as a major player in this production and because of this, the music became empty and hollow. Christmas music is inherently beautiful and touching, yet the only song that actually moved me was “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” near the end of the production. Sometimes, the most classic and well-known songs are the hardest to sing (especially in a group) because the nuances of dynamics, diction and blend are often overlooked.
The arrangements of “Silent Night/Mourner’s Kaddish” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas/Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” were poorly constructed and ruined two of my favorite Christmas songs. When the cast did sing together, there was no effort to start or end together and the actors had no idea how to blend with one another; it was hard to listen to. While several the actors played instruments, it was never spotlighted in a meaningful way except when Jonathan Shue plays violin, center stage, at the beginning of the show. While, I wasn’t expecting a John-Doyle-instrument-toting musical, I did expect to see the instruments to be highlighted in a way that would have enhanced the material. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
The beautiful set, designed by the talented Joe Ragey, consisted of moving wood platforms and a stark, yet stunning background of several trees. Ragey created so many varied stage pictures that it became quite amazing to watch. It was the perfect backdrop for the countless locations that Vogel had created throughout the play. Fumiko Bielefeldt’s period costumes were stunning, especially the giant hoop dresses the ladies were wearing. The details were exquisite and could be seen at the back of the house.
A Civil War Christmas boasts some of the finest Bay Area actors in the business: Diana Torres Koss, Robert Parsons, Kit Wilder, C. Kelly Wright, Gary S. Martinez, and the list goes on. Somehow, with all of this talent, the cast still didn’t gel. I place the blame on the material and the direction, not the actors. The 14 actors have to play over 100 different characters throughout the show and sometimes for mere seconds. Since every actor played several different parts, it didn’t seem that they actually got to become their character, except for Myha’la Herrold-Morgan who played Jessa and Little Joe (the latter for only one scene). Herrold-Morgan was the only character I felt deeply connected to and she ultimately stole the show. (I heard several people comment about her performance as I was leaving the theatre. She is only in junior high!)
While there were some great characterizations throughout, Torres Koss (Mary Todd Lincoln), Wright (Elizabeth Keckley) and Wilder (John Wilkes Booth) were the most memorable. I really wanted to find a connection with several of the characters, but I was never allowed the time to digest the material I was watching. Director Robert Kelley’s swift approach to the already disjointed narrative proved even more confusing. There was not a moment of pause, especially in the first act, where the audience could stop and comprehend what was happening. By the time you realized which character the performer was playing, they were playing a new one. Instead of a historical drama, it became a sort of farce and not a very funny one.
Overall, I just didn’t find the joy of Christmas in this production. I wanted a break from the rushed holiday shopping and over-packed aisles of electronics and toys and instead I watched a hurried production full of empty “Season’s Greetings” and insincere sentiment that you get in a cheap Christmas card. While, you can find some Christmas cheer in A Civil War Christmas, it just wasn’t what I was looking for this holiday season.