Editor's note: On this tour, Larry Gatlin and John Schneider alternate engagements. Check your local listings for the star appearing in your area.
The Confederate flag is in the news. Recent protests were staged about flying the flag over the South Carolina capitol, and about it being part of the state flag of Georgia. (It is also part of Mississippi's state flag.) The Civil War still ignites opinions, sparking emotional responses that stem from the past but hold meaning in the present.
What rich material, then, for the stage. Unfortunately, the most high-profile piece, "The Civil War" by Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd, and Jack Murphy, fails to tap into the historical and emotional depth of the subject in an artistically meaningful way. The revised show, whose NETworks tour opened on January 18 at Cincinnati's Aronoff Center, is still not a traditional musical. The production is more of a costumed theme concert with snazzy lighting, slide projections, and choral choreography. Blending performance forms can create innovative and exciting pieces, such as "Stomp" or Cirque du Soliel or even the Flying Karamazov Brothers. "Bring in 'da Noise/Bring in 'da Funk" successfully created a theatrical narrative from history, tap dance, and various musical styles. But in the case of "The Civil War", the experiment can neglect the necessary components of each element and result in a formulaic, redundant hodge podge that fails its subject matter.
The production's only snatch of a throughline is the progression of the war, from preparations at Richmond in 1861 to the surrender at Appomattox in 1865. The themes are familiar: brother fighting brother, loving husband leaving wife, slaves seeking freedom. The opening number, "Brother, My Brother" presents these snippets with unnamed, general characters (a slave, a soldier, an abolitionist, the captain). Through brief narratives underscored by music, documentary sound bites feed the audience details of the war from personal and official perspectives.
The production looks like it could work, visually. Douglas W. Schmidt's set features a crumbling brick facade upstage, deteriorating columns towards the wings, a bridge above the band (who occupy centerstage), two sets of risers downstage for the performers, and sheer screens that reflect the historical images and data of Wendall K. Harrington's projections. Figures for casualties and wounded soldiers flash throughout the show, stunningly high at first, an unnoteworthy repetition later. Old photos evoke farm landscapes, battlefields, families, and soldiers. They release the captured past and bring a reality to the stage. It's a shame that the music and performance around these images don't work together to better convey that history.
Instead, the show presents a string of formulaic pop songseven if they are somewhat varied in country, gospel, and rock stylessung by generic characters. Wildhorn inserts his musical calling card repeatedlythe ominous cymbal splashes, followed by emphatic, dark chords. You almost expect the evil Mr. Hyde to be lurking in the shadows, escaped from another Wildhorn show. The rest of the music is incurably upbeat. Even blues numbers turn sunny, as soulful singing gets shoved aside by the drums' ruthless rock beat and the guitar and keyboards' perky melodies and bright harmonies. Time and again, the heartfelt, simple singing that begins a song is ruined by the stylistic shift when the band kicks in.
The singers (they aren't given the chance to act here) are competent enough. They have strong voices and enthusiastic attitudes. (One voice that I wanted to hear more of was the clear, resonant bass of Moses Braxton Jr. as a slave.) But they appear to be wooden pawns of the ineffective directing of Stephen Rayne and incompetent musical staging of Ken Roberson. As the performers sing, they gesture in unison. No motivation, objective, or instinct are evident. The effect is predictable, disjointed, and reminiscent of a junior high choral concert.
The second number, "By the Sword/Sons of Dixie", offers a chance to establish, musically and physically, the spirits and moods of two conflicting sides. Instead, the number is frustratingly homogeneous, with little more than the lyrics conveying civil war. Stage right, the Union captain (Michael Lanning) and six soldiers pledge their everlasting loyalty to the Union. Then, the soldiers cross to an identical set of risers and surround the Confederate captain (Larry Gatlin), singing the same melody as sons of Dixie ready to let out the rebel yell. This pattern repeats at least twice, with no distinction from one verse to the next. So is this similarity supposed to mean something? That there was essentially no difference between North and South? Or that the producers could only hire six performers to comprise the two armies?
The next number, "Peculiar Institution", is set at a slave market. The blues opening bemoans the slaves' predicament. Then a rock groove kicks in and, although they sing that it "feels more like dyin' than living," the music and the choreography make it feel more like partying. By the end of the first act, eleven songs later, you can predict that the soulful singing of Dawana Gudger-Richardson as a slave will be ruined by an upbeat, rock-driven feel, with repeated choruses and indistinguishable verses, performed with, of course, those unison waving arms and bending knees. And so it is.
The show has dropped a few numbers and added some since its short Broadway run last spring. One is the most engaging and entertaining number of the evening: "Old Gray Coat". Larry Gatlin, as the Confederate captain (and as himself, a country music star) lets loose. The captain's reflection on what he's been through in his tattered uniform, and how dedicated he remains, has the right feel. A harmonica wails, and Gatlin's guitar-playing, singing, and casual movements suit the lyrics and country style of the music, as well as the message. If Wildhorn can pull this off once, why not more often?
BeBe Winans' big number, "River Jordan", is almost as effective. The gospel sound nearly holds its own against the accompaniment. A short instrumental break highlights more dancing, the only opportunity to play musically or physically within the sequence of accompanied documentary nugget/song introduction/verses and chorus.
The rest of the second half is far less rewarding. Since there's no character-driven story, the letter-writing lovers, the captains, or the slaves who appeared in earlier carry no suspense. We know how the war turned out. And the music and choreography are more of the same. But if you plunk down $50 or more for a ticket, maybe complete attendance feels mandatory. A standing ovation is certainly not obligatory.
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