‘A Civil War Christmas’ at CENTERSTAGE by Amanda Gunther

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For a truly inspiring and uniquely heartwarming approach to the holidays CENTERSTAGE is offering up what is sure to become a touching musical classic in Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas. Perfectly ripe with the area’s rich war torn history from 150 years ago, this moving musical enhanced with classic Christmas carols is the perfect way to reconnect with Maryland and Washington’s vibrant past and still eagerly enjoy all the sights and sounds of Christmas this holiday season. Directed by Rebecca Taichman with Musical Direction by Victor Simonson, this robust tale of Christmas around the Potomac provides a frosted window into the lives of civil war soldiers and civilians alike, including the President and First Lady; as rich and flavorful as any historic tale with that iconic heart-melting feeling that only comes around this time of year.

Jeffry Denman (Abraham Lincoln). Photo by Richard Anderson.
Jeffry Denman (Abraham Lincoln). Photo by Richard Anderson.

Vogel’s work is an exceptional approach to the holiday season; deeply stirring and even tragic at times as she gently exposes the world of the war between the states and how it too shouldered the holidays in 1864. The vivacious and lively characters spring to life right before the eyes of the audience, telling their stories clear as the snow on Christmas morning, weaving casually in and out of song. Vogel’s work tells a story of hope and peace; gifts that everyone wishes for beneath their Christmas tree, and she does so with a classic knack for storytelling; a natural born gift in her words that translate seamlessly to the stage. It were as if the old world carols performed throughout were composed solely for the purpose of these holiday themed Civil War vignettes; tying them all together with sprigs of holly and a shiny Christmas bow.

The old world feel of a time gone by is created mostly in the imaginations of the audience, with a healthy dose of acting from the performers, but is assisted by Costume Designer Dane Laffrey. Working with Director Rebecca Taichman, Laffrey presents a deconstructed approach to putting the actors in costume, having them step into the enormous bustles of their hoop skirts and slide into the arms of their uniform vests right on the stage. It creates an illusion; real human beings telling a story and becoming characters to share these stories with others in the spirit of the holiday.

Dialect Coach Evamarii A. Johnson assists the cast with perfecting their southern sounds, when appropriate, and articulating the sounds of cultural differences from the civil war. Johnson’s work is essential in crafting the world of the play as the setting is all but bare and the vocal coaching in this production is a rewarding element all its own when the hints of accents carry over into songs.

Director Rebecca Taichman imbues an ensemble quality into the performance; no one man or woman carries the show more than another, and while certain actors may play important characters like Abraham Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth, the performance’s success rests on the shoulders of the entire cast. The constant movement between scenes; actors pacing about the stage in a focused frenzy, is a magical and almost cinematic element that creates a sense of time pacing and locations whirling away from one to the next; a bold and well-executed choice made by Taichman.

The cast of 'A Civil War Christmas.' Photo by Richard Anderson.
The cast of ‘A Civil War Christmas.’ Photo by Richard Anderson.

The production reminds the audience that victory goes hand in hand with defeat; when the union camp headed by General Grant (Matthew Greer) strikes up a rousing rendition of “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.” Greer has a hearty robust sound when he enters his solo portion of this song, victory fully present in his voice. The southern camp on the opposite side of the Potomac, with the lone Robert E. Lee (Jeffry Denman) provides a much more somber version of the song. Denman’s rendition of the song is sweet and slower, filled with a wistful sorrow like a ghost revisiting a treasured pastime that can be no more.

Irony would have Greer later playing the villainous John Wilkes Booth, who leads a group of trouble makers in “Maryland, My Maryland,” a gritty number to the tune of “O, Christmas Tree,” about carrying out their mission to kidnap Lincoln in the name of the southern cause. Denman naturally takes on the role of the benevolent Lincoln, with a rather robust rendition of “God Rest Merry, Gentlemen.” Joined by the other men in his cabinet the song echoes a bit like the old boys’ club celebrating victory and sends tidings of great joy across the stage.

A runaway for freedom, Hannah (Nicole Lewis) and a hard working soldier Decatur Bronson (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) may not interact together in scene as those two characters but they share a song that lets their souls take flight in “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Lewis’ portion of the song comes from a place inspired by hope and optimism whereas Adjepong is singing from a wounded soul struggling to carry on; both making the song an awe-inspiring moment in the production. Lewis later shares a duet with Mrs. Keckley “Sew the Collar, Finish the Hem/What Child Is This?” that is both harrowing and beautiful, watering the hopes of the Christmas season with heart-wrenching tears.

There are captivating moments throughout the production, both in song and in successful character presentation. Mary Todd Lincoln (Kati Brazda) and Mrs. Keckley (Tracey Conyer Lee) share many of these moments between them; several of amusing levity when Mrs. Keckley tries to curb the First Lady’s spending habits out in the market. Both women have exceptionally beautiful voices. Brazda sings a truly mesmerizing and stunning rendition of “Silent Night” at the bedside of the dying soldier; a serenely haunting moment that steals your breath away. Lee sings several songs throughout the production but none so moving as “Ain’t that A-Rockin’ All Night” where the thunder of her soul fiercely infuses the number as she tries to sing little Jessa back to life. Both women create exceptional presences on the stage and make splendid additions to the ensemble.

Nicole Lewis,and Mackenzie Kristine Jarrett. Photo by Richard Anderson.
Nicole Lewis,and Mackenzie Kristine Jarrett. Photo by Richard Anderson.

With so many other performances of note throughout, you will simply have to attend the performance to catch them all. Keep your ears out for Tyrone Davis Jr. when he performs his falsetto rendition of “The Holly and the Ivy,” as well as the southern horse and northern mule ballet moment that lights up the audience with a good sprinkling of holiday cheer. And the Wormley Brothers (played by Davis Jr. and Sekou Laidlow) add a few chuckles of their own when trying to sort out the great White House Christmas Tree debacle. “O, Christmas Tree,” and “I Heard The Bells” as the finale to Act I and the show respectively, are two wonderful numbers with which to conclude these acts as well as showcase all the fine talent the cast has to offer as an ensemble.

A Civil War Christmas is unlike any Christmas story you’ve seen or heard, and with its truth rooted right here in our city’s history it’s a ‘Must See’ this holiday season.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.

A Civil War Christmas plays through December 22, 2013 at CENTERSTAGE— 700 North Calvert Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.