Last week marked the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, and a revival of the war-weary 1975 musical “Shenandoah” couldn’t be timelier. “Shenandoah,” of course, deals with the Civil War, but the question it asks — about the necessity for all that killing and dying — is as relevant as ever.
There is something chillingly appropriate about performing “Shenandoah” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Director Jeff Calhoun, who staged last season’s stirring and original “Big River” at Ford’s, uses the effective device of placing the show in a huge, heavy frame emblazoned with the words “The Nation Mourns” at the bottom, a reference to a memorial poem on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Like a more somber version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” the actors move in and out of the frame, assuming the fixed positions of subjects in a painting. In fact, the set by Tobin Ost, with its rolling hills and scarlet-streaked skies, resembles a work by American artist Thomas Hart Benton.
“Shenandoah” presents a pacifist stance within a patriotic, Americana context. Based on the 1965 movie starring Jimmy Stewart, “Shenandoah” centers on Charlie Anderson (Scott Bakula), a Lincolnesque widower from Virginia who is adamant about keeping his sons out of the Civil War. He believes in America, not the North and South, and although the battles are practically at his front door, he wants none of it. By the end, however, his family falls prey to the random violence of war, and despite Charlie’s efforts, this is one thing he cannot make all right.
Mr. Calhoun’s production features striking staging and winning performances, especially by Mr. Bakula as the dignified and brooding Charlie Anderson. Best known for his work in the television series “Quantum Leap” and “Enterprise NX-01,” Mr. Bakula’s early career was in the theater and he exhibits strong stage presence and an agreeable singing voice, although his breath control could be improved. His Charlie Anderson is a profoundly lonely man (he spends much of his time talking to the grave of his dead wife, Martha) who nonetheless passionately fulfills his family obligations and tries to instill into his brood a sense of morality and integrity.
One wishes the musical featured more people like Charlie Anderson. “Shenandoah” at times feels flimsy and patched together, and one of its major drawbacks is that the characters pass by in a pleasant blur of wholesome testosterone, especially the Anderson family. You have a hard time telling one son from another, and only the jokester of the bunch, Nathan (Rick Faugno), stands out as having any personality.
The tomboyish daughter Jenny (Megan Lewis) possesses a powerhouse singing voice and a feisty spirit, and the youngest son, Robert (Kevin Clay), does distinguish himself in a sweet duet with his friend Gabriel (Mike Mainwaring), a slave, in the jaunty “Why Am I Me?” The show also suffers from interminable narrative passages that go on so long you find yourself desperately scanning the stage for a sign someone is about to burst into song. The acts seem unbalanced as well, with a windy first act almost seeming an endurance test, followed by a sharper, more poignant second half.
The score by Gary Geld and Peter Udell is flavorful only in passages, and the music is catchy in an old-timey, Grand Ole Opry sort of way, but about as substantial as Confederate scrip. There are standout numbers, including the lilting strains of an Irish ballad heard in “The Only Home I Know,” sung with affecting wistfulness by a group of forlorn soldiers, and “Meditation,” a soliloquy for Charlie Anderson that reminds you of Billy Bigelow’s musings in “Carousel.” Miss Lewis and Garrett Long harmonize exquisitely in the ode to matrimonial compatibility, “We Make a Beautiful Pair,” and Miss Long also lends her soaring vocals to the second act opener, “Freedom.”
“Shenandoah” may not be a major musical, but its message that war affects us all, no matter if we choose to support our military’s efforts or not, is stirring and stunningly relevant today to a battle-fatigued America.
WHAT: “Shenandoah,” by Gary Geld and Peter Udell
WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 30.
TICKETS: $39 to $52
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS