‘Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War’ at Ford’s Theatre

With a glorious mélange of words and music, Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War tells the story of America’s struggle to keep our nation together and abolish the wretched and cruel institution of slavery. The show is an adaptation by Richard Hellesen and Mark Ramont of the 1999 Broadway musical The Civil War, with music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Jack Murphy, and book by Gregory Boyd and Frank Wildhorn. Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War is part of “Ford’s 150: Remembering the Lincoln Assassination” which is a series of events marking the 150-year anniversary of that historic and tragic event.

Ryan Burke, Samuel Edgerly, Christopher D. Harris, Gregory Maheu and Jason Wooten. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Ryan Burke, Samuel Edgerly, Christopher D. Harris, Gregory Maheu and Jason Wooten. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Ably directed by Tony-nominated Jeff Calhoun, the musical is structured as a series of individual vignettes, each telling the story of tragedy and triumph, heartache and hope, from the point of view of slaves, Union and Confederate soldiers, and the loved ones they left behind. The words and music are based on President Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and writings as well as letters by ordinary people who lived through that epic moment in history.

There could not be a more perfect venue for than Ford’s Theatre, and Tobin Ost’s scenic design could not be a more perfect complement. The play opens with a large, mud-stained American flag draped over a huge wooden frame which is slanted downward from stage right to stage left. The flag has 35 stars arranged in a 5 x 7 pattern, to represent the 35 States at the beginning of the Civil War. When the flag drops, we see that the frame includes a projection screen and forms three sides of President Lincoln’s office in the White House.

There could not be a more perfect venue for Freedom’s Song than Ford’s Theatre, and Tobin Ost’s scenic design could not be a more perfect complement.The play opens with a large, mud-stained American flag draped over a huge wooden frame which is slanted downward from stage right to stage left. The flag has 35 stars arranged in a 5 x 7 pattern, to represent the 35 States at the beginning of the Civil War. When the flag drops, we see that the frame includes a projection screen and forms three sides of President Lincoln’s office in the White House.

Perennial favorite Nova Y. Payton as the Storyteller steps onto the stage in contemporary clothing and leads the cast in a thrilling “Prologue.” Sometimes with accompaniment and sometimes a cappella, Payton’s voice fills the theatre with rich tones and stirring melodies.

Tracy Lynn Olivera as a nurse. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Tracy Lynn Olivera as a nurse. Photo by Scott Suchman.

As the play progresses, the cast dons colorful, appealing, and historically appropriate costumes, courtesy of Costume Designer Wade Laboissonniere.

Freedom’s Song is truly an ensemble show and the cast members take turns speaking the lines from Lincoln’s writings and speeches. When the full company joins in the folk song, “Brother, My Brother” and follows with the patriotic medley of “By the Sword” and “Sons of Dixie,” each performer is as wonderfully talented as the next.

Throughout the show, cast members also perform in various smaller combinations. The Slaves sing “This Peculiar Institution” with a Reggae beat and describe slavery as “more like dying than living.” Carolyn Agan as the Union Private’s Wife and Tracy Lynn Olivera as the Confederate Private’s Wife, combine in beautiful harmony in “Missing You” and evoke the sadness and longing of those who are left behind to wait for their loved ones to return.

Gregory Maheu as Union Private. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Gregory Maheu as Union Private. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The highlight of the show was the musical number based on one of the most famous letters of the Civil War. It was written by Major Sullivan Ballou of the Rhode Island militia to his wife, Sarah, just a week before he was killed at the first battle of Bull Run. In the show, the letter inspires the song, “Sarah” sung by the incomparable Gregory Maheu as the Union Private. Maheu brings to life the sweetness of romantic love with his strong and confident vocal range and his impressive vocal dynamics that begin with a whisper and smoothly crescendo to an explosive climax. The beautiful words and beautiful performance tugged at our heartstrings and brought tears to our eyes.

His “wife” (Carolyn Agan) responds with a lovely, bell-like voice expressing equally strong emotion and devotion as she sings “The Honor of Your Name.”

Kevin McAllister in "Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War." Photo by Scott Suchman.
Kevin McAllister in “Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.” Photo by Scott Suchman.

With a stunningly deep, rich, and powerful voice, Kevin McAllister as the Fugitive plaintively asks, “Father, How Long?” (till I can sing freedom’s song). The talented Chris Sizemore as the Confederate Sergeant provides comic relief in the tuneful and energetic “Old Gray Coat” in which he sings an ode to his Confederate uniform.

Conducted by Music Director Michael T. Sebastian, the versatile and talented members of the eight-piece orchestra are an integral part of the show as they complement, but never overshadow the onstage performers.

Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War has a variety of musical styles from rock to country to ballads to gospel to march music, performed by an ultra-talented cast. It combines historical fact with human emotion and theatricality. It tells a uniquely American story through the eyes of those who lived and loved and struggled through it and it soars to the heights.

Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War is a triumph!

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War plays through May 20, 2015 at Ford’s Theatre – 511 10th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (800) 982-2787, or purchase them online



RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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Paul M. Bessel and Barbara Braswell
The most important thing about Paul M. Bessel is that on January 1, 2011, he married the most wonderful woman in the world, who helped him expand his enjoyment of theater. (The first show he remembers was Fiorello! when he was ten, wearing his first suit.) He and his wife now attend as many musicals, history seminars, and concerts as possible, sometimes as many as 4 or 5 a week, enjoying retirement and the joys of finding love late in life, and going on unconventionally romantic dates such as exhibits of mummies and lectures on parliamentary procedure. They live in Leisure World of Maryland and in addition to going to theaters as often as they can they are active together in community and local political organizations. Barbara Braswell grew up in Newport RI, where Jackie Kennedy once bought her an ice cream cone. She has been interested in theatre her whole life. While pursuing a 33-year career with the U.S. Department of Transportation — helping states build highways, including H-3 in Hawaii, where Barbara helped arrange for a shaman to bless the highway — she attended as many shows as possible on her own, with her late mother, and now with her husband. Now retired, she devotes a great deal of time to theatre, community and local political meetings, and having as much fun as possible.