- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

Condensing the complexities and breadth of the Civil War into 90 minutes seems impossible. It took premier documentarian Ken Burns 11 hours on PBS, but Frank Wildhorn’s emotive musical “The Civil War” packs in a dizzying array of perspectives from the Union, Confederates, Southern slaves — and even the modern point of view.

The 1998 show is a song-cycle with lyrics based on actual Civil War-era letters and diary entries. It’s being performed at Ford’s Theatre by a cast of 16 whose ensemble singing is consistently fine. The drama of this oratorio, directed with an eye toward current tastes by Jeff Calhoun, is heightened by sepia-toned projections of photos from the war and haunting archival images of the people. Not meant to be a literal chronicle of historic events, “War” is instead an impressionistic pastiche of the thoughts and feelings expressed by soldiers and their loved ones as well as such leaders as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Although the onstage orchestra features the banjos, harmonicas, guitars, and fiddles typical of the 1860s and the score contains a smidgen of period waltzes and military marches, Mr. Wildhorn’s sensibility lies firmly in popular music. It’s mainly Southern rock and contemporary country, with a little gospel thrown in to get the audience stirred up. There’s an emphasis on the rousing pop anthem — the kind sung by Bob Seger — which works electrifyingly in the numbers “Old Gray Coat” and “Last Waltz for Dixie.” But after a while, everything tends to blend in a blur of vague passion.

Speaking of blurs, the myriad characters in the musical tend to be interchangeable, with few distinguishing personality features. Perhaps this was done to evoke the depersonalizing effects of war. Alas, we learn so little about the characters that we’re limited to superficial responses to their experiences. For example, it takes reading the program to find out that the musical is about a woman named Sarah who loses her husband to the war and about a dying soldier’s final words to his father.

Where “The Civil War” gets more confusing is in the production values, especially the costumes — a motley mix of period garb and modern dress that has some people looking like they just walked out of a truck stop and others as if they should be appearing in the recent Broadway revival of “Hair.” A revolving turntable only accentuates the panoramic quality of the show.

“The Civil War” is most affecting in simplicity, when the performers merely stand quietly and sing. These moments capture the heart, especially the deep-voiced Kingsley Leggs singing the moving “River Jordan” and “Freedom’s Child,” Michael Lanning and Sean Jenness’ soul-stirring duets in “The Glory” and “Brother Meets Brother,” and Bligh Voth’s thrilling renditions of “Missing You” and “The Honor of Your Name.”


WHAT: “The Civil War,” music by Frank Wildhorn, book and lyrics by Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy

WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 514 10th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, selected Thursday matinees. Through May 24.

TICKETS: $16 to $52

PHONE: 800/899-2367

WEB SITE: www.fords.org


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