Thursday, May 7, 2009

Things I Learned From The Civil War, not that Civil War. I mean The Civil War currently playing at Ford’s Theatre in DC. It’s Frank Wildhorn’s musical version. Except it’s not really a musical. It’s more of a concert, really. Except it’s not really a concert, either. I’ve just checked the program, which calls it a “Song Cycle.” I’ll buy that. Actually, it’s more of a “Song Circle.” The songs circle round and round and round the subject, like the nifty turntable which circles the show’s onstage orchestra.

Which brings me to the first thing I learned from The Civil War: turntables are awfully fun. Especially when someone is walking on one while it is moving in the opposite direction. It’s really fun to watch somebody walking but not getting anywhere. I also learned that a turntable should be used very sparingly when transporting a single, solitary person on and off stage. It sort of makes the performer look like a manikin (there are manikins in this play, too, by the way). The Civil War already has a museum quality to it, which is not helped by the sight of lone actors slowly circling onstage to begin their big number.

What else did I learn from The Civil War? Well, here’s a biggie I learned right up front: the Civil War was only about slavery. Not about regionalism between North, South, and West. Certainly not about States’ Rights vs. Federalism. Not about anything but slavery. This was big news to me; my teachers in grade school spelled out at least three major reasons for the war. But Frank Wildhorn has decided there really was only one cause, and who can blame him? Songs about freedom and slavery and being sold as property and those terrible things, they practically write themselves. On the other hand, songs about political, governmental self-determination must be impossible to write, and really boring, too. I bet not even Stephen Sondheim could do it! Well, actually, he kind of did, in Pacific Overtures, when he wrote the Act II opener (above), all about various foreign governments forcing changes on Japan. Never mind, I never should have brought that up. It does Wildhorn no favors to appear in the same paragraph with Sondheim.

Let’s see, I learned many more things from The Civil War. I learned the talented Chris Sizemore (right) has a great pair of lungs. And a great pair of arms, too. His solo number, “Sarah,” is a standout. So are those biceps in that sleeveless shirt. In fact, everybody looks really good in their costumes, which are contemporary, but with a subtle “period” slant. I think they work great. And it sets up the final moment of the show, when the entire cast suddenly appears onstage dressed in period clothes. The moment is startling, and strikingly effective. (I think I read a review that did not like it, but they are wrong. It’s a quick but stunning moment.)

By the way, I also learned that EVERYBODY looks good in white choir robes.

In terms of learning things, well, I already knew that Stephen Gregory Smith (left) has a great set of pipes. Everybody in town knows that. But did you know he can also blow horns? I didn't, but he can, and he does a bang-up job. I wonder how he learned to pucker so well... I loved his little moment as a dying soldier, asking a nurse to read from the Bible. That reminds me of something else I learned: this show could use more little moments like that. There is almost no book here, but one of the most moving moments (in addition to the nurse sequence) comes when a Union and a Confederate soldier have the briefest of conversations with each other. They don’t SING to each other, they talk to each other, and the scene is heartbreaking in its simplicity. It couldn’t be more than two minutes long, but it is a highlight of the production.

Oh, that reminds me of another thing I learned. Just because an actor appeared on Broadway, it doesn’t mean he’s a dynamic performer. And when somebody is sitting alone onstage, strumming a guitar and singing a ballad, he really needs to be a dynamic performer.

But you know who IS a dynamic performer? My grad school buddy Elliot Dash, who has matured into an actor of depth and gravitas (I mentioned that a while ago, after I saw him in Driving Miss Daisy). Also, I learned from The Civil War that Elliot can hit bass notes. I thought he was a tenor! I can now see Showboat in his future...or at least Big River.

What else? Well, I learned that gospel music, when sung well, never gets old. It’s sung REALLY well here, and it never gets old. But when Power Ballad is piled upon Power Ballad, well, that gets old. No matter how well they are performed (and here, they are performed VERY well).

I learned that playing the keyboard is great for the biceps. Both Jay Crowder and Howard Breitbart tinkle the ivories in the show’s orchestra, and they are doing us all a FINE favor by wearing short sleeve shirts. In fact, they should be required to wear short sleeve shirts, cuz, you know, if you got great guns, let us enjoy them, too.

I also learned that, onstage, the more often actors shake each others’ hands, or pat each other on the back, or hug each other in that “aren’t we best buddies?” kind of way, the more artificial it seems.
I learned that the pronunciation of the word “scourge” rhymes with “gorge.” That is indeed a surprise. I was taught that the pronunciation of the word “scourge” rhymes with “merge.” I just looked it up in my old-fashioned dictionary (you know, the one that sits on your bookshelf, rather than the one which resides in your Microsoft Word), and “Scourge” does indeed rhyme with “merge.” Well, the word was mispronounced by actor Michael Goodwin, and was probably a slip of the tongue. He will correct it in subsequent performances, I’m sure. Except that Goodwin’s performance in The Civil War is all on tape, as he recites various writings of Abe Lincoln. So, when Ford’s Theatre went into the studio and recorded these snippets, nobody noticed that Goodwin was mispronouncing the word “scourge.” Now, they’re stuck with it. The show's press boasted that these pre-recorded speeches were going to be delivered by Hal Holbrook, but I guess that plan fell through. Perhaps Hal disagreed with Ford's on the pronunciation of certain words...

Hey, I learned that, even after a multi-million dollar renovation, the sight lines at Ford’s Theatre still suck. I hate those columns in the audience. I’m always sitting behind one. And it’s pretty frustrating to be seated in orchestra seats but miss many of the swift projections which apparently add depth to the show, because the floor of the balcony is in the way. I bet those projections were great. Wish I could have seen them.

Well, I whined a while ago about trying to see The Civil War on a discounted rate, which ballooned an additional nine dollars when being sold online BY A COMPUTER, so I am very glad I ended up seeing the show anyway. It’s a very strong cast, and probably the best production, concept-wise, this piece is ever likely to receive.