A trio of new-to-Baltimore stage shows take the spotlight this holiday season

In addition to the usual flurry of such perennial favorites, this year's lineup gains fresh spice from several productions, including a play about the last Christmas of the Civil War and stage adaptations of popular Christmas movies.

November 23, 2013|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

The performing arts scene is revved up for another holiday season.

In addition to the usual flurry of such perennial favorites as Handel's "Messiah" and Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," this year's lineup gains fresh spice from several new-to-Baltimore productions, including a play about the last Christmas of the Civil War and stage adaptations of popular holiday movies.

Here's a look at some of these novel attractions.

'A Civil War Christmas'

In 1997, just before the premiere of "How I Learned to Drive," the powerful play about child abuse that would earn her a Pulitzer Prize, Paula Vogel got the inspiration for a very different work. It would be the playwright's answer to a question that had nagged her each holiday season.

"I kept asking why American theater companies were always putting on Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol,' why we were doing a story about poverty in Victorian England," Vogel says. "Aren't there Christmas stories of our own we could tell?"

Vogel, born in Washington and raised in the Maryland suburbs (she makes her home now in New England), found a fertile source for such stories in a chapter of history that had fascinated her since childhood. The result is "A Civil War Christmas," a panoramic play with music receiving its Baltimore premiere at Center Stage.

The work had a well-received off-Broadway run last year, when Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwewi-Armah saw it.

"I was tremendously touched by its theatricality and its heart," Kwei-Armah says. "It's intimate, yet vast; theatrical, yet truthful. It's wonderful to present a Pulitzer Prize-winning Maryland [playwright] who has written something so poignant and clever."

Vogel weaves together the lives great and small, black and white, slave and free, Christian and Jew, Union and Confederate, in and around Washington as Christmas 1864 approaches.

Lincoln and his wife are there, along with Mary Todd's dressmaker Mrs. Keckley (she was also an important figure in the recent Stephen Spielberg film "Lincoln"). Grant and Lee make appearances, as do Booth and his fellow conspirators. In a nod to Dickens, perhaps, ghosts have a place in this Christmas tale.

Vintage songs of the era and of the season are an integral part of the play. Vogel shows common ground between "All Quiet on the Potomac Tonight" and "Silent Night," and makes a point of reminding everyone that "O Tannenbaum" and the secessionist-leaning "Maryland, My Maryland" share the same melody.

"I remember learning the Maryland state song in fourth grade in 1959," the playwright says, "and asking, what is this line about 'Northern scum'? I think we can't have enough reminders about the Civil War. We are still grappling with issues of that war in Maryland, Washington and nationally, issues that were never really resolved."

Vogel's play points up plenty of connections between past and present.

"You see so many people today questioning what the contract with the government is, just as people were doing in 1859," she says.

And the subject of race remains as volatile as ever. Vogel acknowledges that in various ways, perhaps most subtly when the character of a black farmowner fighting in the Union army tells of how his wife was "taken off her own front porch" by Rebel soldiers.

"That's my shout-out to Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard scholar who was arrested on his own front porch [in 2009]," Vogel says.

There is also a reference to Washington becoming "more partisan, more conspiratorial" than ever in 1864, a line that may have a particularly familiar ring to it now.

Can a work about such a troubled Christmastime, with so many serious matters addressed, satisfy audiences seeking holiday entertainment?

"It's not traditional, and it's definitely not 'A Christmas Carol,' but does it make people leave the theater feeling warm and hopeful? Yes, it does," Kwei-Armah says.

Never mind the little matter of what will happen to Lincoln a few months after that Christmas. In the play, the prospect of peace hovers in the air.

"I do believe hope is the greatest civic virtue, and I think there is a lot of hope in this play," Vogel says. "It is uplifting and it is for families. I felt if we could find hope in the last Christmas of the Civil War, there is no reason we can't be hopeful in 2013 or 2014."

"A Civil War Christmas," currently in previews, opens Tuesday and runs through Dec. 22 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $19 to $59. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.

'White Christmas'

Things don't get much more Christmas-y than "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" — either the 1954 movie starring Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, or the adaptation fashioned about a decade ago by David Ives and Paul Blake that made its way to Broadway in 2008.

The national touring production of the stage version heads to the Hippodrome next month, bringing with it a hearty dose of feel-good medicine.

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