Making its New York City debut in a limited run(that is scheduled to wrap up before the end of the year), “A Civil War Christmas” has the stuff to become an annual Christmas tradition on the Manhattan theatre scene. It’s an 1864 set pageant of a show(it’s not officially a musical, although it’s being described as a “play with music”), featuring richly realized Christmas carols and folks songs—most of which should be at least somewhat familiar to the majority of the audience. It’s been a big month for Abraham Lincoln. This show, featuring Bob Stillman as the 16th U. S. president, and Tony award-winning Alice Ripley as First Lady Mary Todd(although most performers in this large cast play multiple roles—including Jonathan-David as a horse who trotted to my fourth row seat and snorted/whinnied in my face!)began previews just days after Steven Spielberg’s critically acclaimed film opened nationwide. He’s probably the most written about and admired leader of this nation. In fact, when the character stepped out regally across the stage before the show’s opening and reminded the house to “please remember to turn off those electronic devices that didn’t exist in 1864”, the majesty of the man must have overtaken the crown. I didn’t hear a ring or a beep or a chirp for the entire 145 minute running time of the performance. Sadly, a rare occurrence these days. The wonderfully spare set of wooden planks creates a homey, intimate feel. The far wall to the right of your seat is adorned with a variety of hooks holding hats of the period(the stovepipe variety included)along with various coats and uniforms of the time(NO…you should not hang yours there! It’s not a coat-check, but I saw the attempt made more than once! Sheesh!) The left wall is decorated with historical photographs—including a famous and disturbing shot of a slave scarred from whippings. So, the setting is working on your brain prior to the proceedings even getting under way. The two acts of the actual production will make a strong impression too.
The Paula Vogel-penned drama does have a narrative line, but it’s a sneaky one. It’s really a series of loosely connected vignettes interspersed with(and strengthened by)the Civil War era song selections. This is a group of marvelous, singing actors—some of whom play instruments for the musical interludes(for instance, Ms. Ripley occasionally strums a guitar). There is no orchestra, but there is one musician on a synthesizer seated below the stage to the port side of the audience. The assured direction from Tina Landau keeps things moving at a measured pace, the second act in particular eventually becoming more narrative-driven after an almost haphazardly constructed first hour(and that’s not necessarily a criticism). It all congeals nicely. It’s a touching amalgam of wounded soldiers and escaped slaves. Mrs. Lincoln tries to decorate the White House with a continually elusive Christmas tree(it’s a new tradition inspired by a custom in Germany, but the vast majority of qualified trees have been chopped down to aid the Union soldiers). There are representations of actual figures of the time(Walt Whitman, John Wilkes Booth), and some composite characters designed to represent a few historical events during the war. We do not reach the point of Lincoln’s assassination some four months into the future from the time frame presented, but we experience a seething Booth attempting to hatch a kidnap plan as Lincoln rides off into the night to retrieve a pair of Parisian gloves as a Christmas present for Mary Todd. Also, focus is given to Mrs. Lincoln and her manic swings of mood and temperament—the loss of two sons to illness bolstering the fragility of her psyche. The finale is dominated by the search for a wandering child(adorable Sumaya Bouhbal)of a slave, freezing in the twilight December air. Just know that the level of portrayed tragedy is kept to a minimum here—it’s a Christmas show, after all. But the ghosts of tragedies past and the spectre of those yet to come are ever-present.
There is a great deal of power in the stark depiction of this time in our history. A young boy from the south(a gender-bending role of Ms. Ripley’s), runs off to join a band of Confederate raiders—only to end up weeping before the barrel of a rifle held by a black Union soldier. And a dying infantryman(Jonathan-David, again) awaits the expected arrival of a renowned humanist before he shuffles off this mortal coil. This is a deeply touching ride that deftly avoids overly saccharine moments. It’s a tapestry that acknowledges tragedy but doesn’t wallow in it. It also makes the Lincolns human despite their iconic personas. It’s a story haunted by spirits, but also bolstered by the spirit of the season. There’s a lot of resonance contained in this song-filled history trip. Seemingly slipshod initially, it wraps up with a surprising cohesiveness. It’s a rousing, heartfelt journey through the survival period of a nation during its most turbulent era. Special note is made in the playbill of the chronology of this work and its full realization being framed by two violent, deadly U.S. storms(Katrina & Sandy), as well as the two-time election of the first African-American president. Anyone who isn’t touched by the once-thought impossibility of such an occurrence as the latter, is truly the darkest of cynics. It should require no political party-line to appreciate the significance . And as a snapshot of a war that divided and then reunited a nation, there could be no better coda than the realization of who the current tenant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is. “A Civil War Christmas” is a more than welcome and sumptuous holiday treat. This show rates a 9