NEW YORK (AP) — Who knew Abraham Lincoln could play the violin and accordion? In Paula Vogel’s warm, non-saccharine vision, the Lincoln character pitches in to do that and more in her sprightly, intellectual musical play, “A Civil War Christmas.”
The crazy-quilt production that opened Tuesday night at New York Theatre Workshop is a sweeping, literate and entertaining tale of intersecting spiritual myths and American history on the bitterly cold Christmas Eve of 1864.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Vogel includes racism and prejudice, yet also goodness and tolerance, as a talented ensemble of 11 nimbly sings, dances and enacts multiple characters both historical and fictional. Tina Landau’s elegiac direction integrates a multitude of events with a mixture of 19th-century music and Christmas carols.
Landau’s creative staging inform affecting vignettes and foreshadowings, as a lost little child, a grieving mother haunted by her dead son’s ghost, soldiers on both sides, would-be assassins and a president in peril (Bob Stillman, humorous yet dignified) all appear suspended within the same virtual snow globe.
Lincoln has just been re-elected, and the South has pretty much lost the war, although fighting continues. While the country remains bitterly divided, Vogel focuses on unifying themes that affect all Americans — whether they recognize the truth or not.
The “three wise men” here are Lincoln plus two generals, Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee. Among many plot ironies, the victorious Union general Grant is presented as a drunk, while vanquished Lee of the Confederacy is seen nobly refusing to partake of privileges unavailable to his troops.
John Wilkes Booth (Sean Allan Krill, madly histrionic) is earnestly plotting to assassinate Lincoln, while Mary Todd Lincoln (a luminous, delightful Alice Ripley) is trying to tamp down her nervous outbursts while secretly tending to wounded Union soldiers. Lighter motifs include a much-coveted Christmas tree that keeps disappearing.
Karen Kandel is soul-stirringly effective as Elizabeth Keckley, a free-born African-American seamstress who’s a friend to Mrs. Lincoln. K. Todd Freeman is fiercely proud as Decatur Bronson, an angry Union sergeant whose wife Rose was stolen two years earlier by retreating Confederates.
Jonathan-David is effective in a number of roles, including a dying soldier and a whimsical turn as a horse called Silver. Rachel Spencer Stewart is determinedly brave as Silver’s 13-year-old owner, an unlucky Virginia boy who encounters some mean raiders and an even meaner Union soldier. Sumaya Bouhbal is simply adorable as the lost little girl, Jessa, and Amber Iman is striking as Jessa’s desperate mother.
The music includes folk song fragments and a drawn-out, mournful “Silent Night,” sung tremulously a capella by Ripley to a dying Jewish soldier, as if Mary Todd Lincoln hoped she could keep him alive as long as the song never ended. Then the chorus joins in, singing the Kaddish, a typical cultural mashup for Vogel.
A couple of wise, recurring sentiments reflect Vogel’s realistic optimism: “Share the gladness of your heart” and “The hope of peace may be sweeter than peace itself.” For a country still cleaved by politics nearly 150 years after the Civil War, Vogel’s focus on decency and commonalities sends a hopeful message.
More Related Stories
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11