Review: Paula Vogel’s ‘A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration’ at 1st Stage

A Civil War Christmas at 1st Stage is a strong addition to plays that connect with the holiday season. Playwright Paula Vogel embraces and examines provocative themes in this piece, looking at all of the loss and potential renewal near the end of the Civil War, at Christmastime. Vogel built the story around existing period music, including hymns and carols. The music, arranged by Daryl Waters and directed by Markus Williams, helps connect multiple stories which are interwoven on a very cold Christmas Eve in 1864 in Washington, D.C.

(l-r) Russell Rinker, Karma Price, Billie Krishawn, Ayanna Hardy, Suzy Alden, Gary L. Perkins III, Joshua Simon, Demitrus Carter, Rebecca Ballinger, and V. Savoy McIlwain in "A Civil War Christmas" at 1st Stage. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Russell Rinker, Karma Price, Billie Krishawn, Ayanna Hardy, Suzy Alden, Gary L. Perkins III, Joshua Simon, Demitrus Carter, Rebecca Ballinger, and V. Savoy McIlwain in “A Civil War Christmas” at 1st Stage. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Abraham Lincoln (Russell Rinker) is the President, and he and Mary Todd Lincoln (Rebecca Ballinger) are among the characters most frequently focused upon. Lincoln’s nighttime horseback ride as he contemplates the words for his second inaugural address and Mary’s manic decoration of a Christmas tree, provide character-revealing moments. As an example of how well Vogel and director Deidra LaWan Starnes skillfully reveal depth and contradictions in characters, Mary’s “Silent Night” as the ensemble sings “Kaddish” while she is tending a wounded soldier is hauntingly lovely.

Characters range from well-known to fictional, to conflations of real people, and the style of portrayal is also varied. Joshua Simon plays a very serious John Wilkes Booth, but also plays one of Mosby’s Raiders, in a hilarious manner, reminding one of a frivolous Yosemite Sam. Playing most of the young characters in the play and a horse whose expressions are clearly understood, is Karma Price, a very talented high school junior from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Later, when she plays a young girl, separated from her mother and wandering the cold streets of D.C., her plight unites the Black community in the city, singing the gorgeous “Children Go Where I Send Thee.”

The search for someone or something is a uniting theme in the show and is reflected in many of the songs. V. Savoy McIlwain plays Decatus Bronson, whose determined search for his wife leads him to sing “Take No Prisoners” and “Yellow Rose of Texas” with a glorious voice. Sophie Schulman plays a young boy, Raz, who sets off to find and join Mosby’s Raiders. His horse has a brief romance with a mule she meets, as Raz sings a joyful “Gone Away to Shiloh.” Tiziano D’Affuso, who plays Ulysses S. Grant, also has a beautiful voice, singing “I Heard the Bells,” along with others.

Rebecca Ballinger, Suzy Alden, and Tiziano D' Affuso in "A Civil War Christmas" at 1st Stage. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Rebecca Ballinger, Suzy Alden, and Tiziano D’ Affuso in “A Civil War Christmas” at 1st Stage. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The rest of the talented ensemble includes Ayanna Hardy, Demitrus Carter, Suzy Alden, Billy Krishawn, and Gary L. Perkins III. The 12 actors play approximately 47 roles, according to the program, but it does not identify who plays which parts and only identifies which characters, not actors, sing each song. Actors change roles readily, with the addition of a hat and cloak, or rope looped around their neck, turning them into a horse. This aspect of the play using a story theatre-style, worked well, thanks to strong acting choices and dialogue which helped identify personalities being portrayed.

The set design by Jessica Cancino is very flexible, allowing for constant changes of setting as the story shifts locations on a dime. The aged barn-wood feel of the set worked well until it got to the pit band onstage. Three musicians are onstage for the entire performance, with piano, drums, and violin. At times, their presence onstage seemed anachronistic and obtrusive. Light design by John D. Alexander shifted audience focus well, but actors sometimes searched to find the light.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.

A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration plays through December 30, 2018, at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons, VA. Tickets are available online.

Note: 1st Stage’s Artistic Director Alex Levy discusses A Civil War Christmas in his recent interview with DCMTA’s David Siegel here.