Civil War musical feels a bit small

Review: The cast is terrific, the space is right. But at Ford's Theatre, `Reunion' is simply more history lesson than stirring drama. Civil War `epic' lacks drama

March 16, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It is eerily appropriate that "Reunion" -- a musical about the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's part in it -- is playing at Ford's Theatre in Washington, the very theater where Lincoln was shot.

But though he is quoted and frequently referred to, Lincoln isn't a character in the show. If the musical, which is fashioned from historical texts and period music, were a patchwork quilt, Lincoln would be a square missing in the middle. The result gives the unmistakable feeling that the show is playing it safe, as if coming any closer to re-enacting the actual assassination would be ghoulish.

For that matter, in almost all respects, this musical about the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil is surprisingly bland. The format is a play-within-a-play. It is 25 years after the assassination. Harry Hawk, who was the lone actor on stage at Ford's when John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot, is now an actor/manager with his own company, which is presenting a play about what he calls "the late war to save the union."

One of the evening's distinguishing features is that it is told exclusively from the point of view of the North. Another is its small scale. The show is subtitled "A Musical Epic in Miniature" and features a cast of only six, most of whom play multiple roles. (James Judy, who plays Hawk, explains that the small number is due to a misunderstanding with the company's creditors.)

Though all these factors set "Reunion" apart from Frank Wildhorn's considerably larger touring musical, "The Civil War" (which played the Mechanic Theatre in February), there are some striking similarities. For starters, both shows are revues ("Reunion" has a book by Jack Kyrieleison and musical arrangements by Michael O'Flaherty).

In addition, although the Wildhorn piece has an original score, in both cases the text is drawn from historical documents. (One scene, in which a soldier recounts the monotony of military drill, appears to be drawn from the same document.)

"Reunion" also comes regrettably close to reproducing the kitschiest effect in "The Civil War." Near the end of that musical, a white-clad chorus of what appear to be angels sings on the upper level of the set. And sure enough, near the end of "Reunion," while a soldier with a leg wound awaits amputation, actress Whitney Webster, shrouded in white, stands on a balcony singing Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer."

Beyond such individual scenes, the overall feel of the two shows is remarkably alike, too. Both are essentially pageants. While Wildhorn's "Civil War" is a pop concert pageant, "Reunion" takes a more documentary approach. And though the Wildhorn's effort is hardly a high point of musical theater, "Reunion" is tamer still -- more history lesson than stirring drama.

The fault does not lie with the performances.

Ric Ryder, who primarily portrays a young soldier, is boyishly affecting. Joe Cassidy conveys an air of businesslike efficiency as Lincoln's secretary, the character who keeps us posted on the president's thoughts. And James Stovall and Harriet D. Foy are dramatically and vocally moving as a pair of freed slaves.

But as directed by Ron Holgate, who also shares credit with Kyrieleison for the show's "story," the production is reverential when it should be rousing.

"Reunion" was not created specifically for Ford's; it debuted in 1996 under another title at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House and was produced off-Broadway last season. So perhaps it's too much to expect the production to be tailored for Ford's -- even though a crucial scene takes place there. It would not, however, be too much to expect a show about war to have a little more fire.

`Reunion'

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St., N.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, matinees at 1 p.m. Thursday (except today), 2: 30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 18

Tickets: $27-$43

Call: 202-347-4833

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