`Civil War' not quite lost cause

Review: The musical is heavy-handed with its lessons and light on character development, but it has moments of freedom.

February 10, 2000|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

You expect to hear bombs exploding during a musical about the Civil War, but must everything be so bombastic? Composer Frank Wildhorn ("Jekyll & Hyde," "The Scarlet Pimpernel") isn't known for having a light touch, and he goes ballistic in "The Civil War."

Currently being fought on stage at the Mechanic Theatre, this musical shouts its history lesson, is populated by character types who never become full characters, rolls out sound-alike songs and then reprises them as it takes you on a deliberately paced journey from 1861 through 1865. In short (which is one thing it's not), "The Civil War" is just like war, only less fun.

It's not entirely a lost cause, however. Although "The Civil War" is shot through with flaws and had only a brief run on Broadway last year, it has been reworked for this national tour and displays signs of life.

The war itself is inherently fascinating, of course, and the show bombards you with so many slide-projected images and dates that the Civil War's vital statistics come across clearly. The woman responsible for these projections, Wendall K. Harrington, really immerses you in the era.

Also helping establish the right mood is the set design by Douglas W. Schmidt. The scenes are played out before several looming, war-ravaged Corinthian columns worthy of a great plantation house. Although some of Christine Hanak's costumes seem disconcertingly modern, most of the period outfits pass muster and contribute to the you-are-there atmosphere.

There's no getting around the fact that co-authors Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy concoct a superficial narrative that never builds much force and populate it with characters who possess the psychological complexity of wax museum figures, but there are moments when the earnest performers are able to breathe some life into this production.

Not that it's easy to give a lifelike performance here.

Director Stephen Rayne oversees scene after scene in which the performers assume static stand-and-deliver positions, their arms firmly fixed to their sides, and bellow songs your way.

As for Wildhorn's music, well, the on-stage band plays pop-, country- and gospel-style tunes that rarely rise above mediocrity. Closer in structure to a "song cycle" than a conventional book musical, the show manages to make its eclectic sources all sound the same.

And yet, the performers deliver the material as if their characters' lives depended upon it (which they do in this bloody conflict). Top-billed John Schneider cuts a dashing figure as a Confederate captain, even though his singing voice is less handsome and, truth to tell, he's a bit raspy in his big solo number, "Virginia." On the other side of the conflict, Michael Lanning is more consistent vocally and really shines in "Northbound Train." So, the Union wins this particular vocal competition.

Among the supporting cast, a happy discovery is 18-year-old Amy Rutberg as a soldier's wife. Impressively self-assured for such a young performer, she tugs at the heart with "Missing You (My Bill)," "I Never Knew His Name" and "The Honor of Your Name."

Equally reliable in the vocal department are the performers portraying slaves who attain freedom by the end of the show. Gospel star BeBe Winans gets a star turn in "River Jordan," and he also brings emotional power to "Father, How Long," a number he shares with Moses Braxton Jr. and Keith Byron Kirk.

Also delivering some real feeling are Dawana Gudger-Richardson and several backing singers in "Someday."

The show becomes freer at such moments, and it's an emancipation worth proclaiming.

`The Civil War'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre

When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m., through Feb. 13

Tickets: $20-$65; all tickets subject to $1.50 theater restoration fee.

Call: 410-752-1200

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