A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 29, 2016

A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration

"A Civil War Christmas" is unlike any holiday or non-holiday show you'll see, and it is absolutely brilliant. An exciting diversity of musical styles, song selections and arrangements knit together a story that rests lightly atop the energy of the performers.

With fifteen actors ranging in age from youth to elder statesman, crossing gender and race norms to showcase women playing men, men playing horses, and every person on stage in a wheel of continuous motion, "A Civil War Christmas" works like a loom creating a piece of cloth before your eyes.

With "A Civil War Christmas," Artists Rep has produced a play that is at once a celebration and a lament of our country, fitting in these post-election wallows. The brief: Christmas Eve 1864, when President Lincoln could see an end of the Civil War; when unprecedented political and individual machinations worked to undermine the President; and the Emancipation Proclamation had officially freed slaves, who fled north by any means available.

In this mulligan stew of events, Christmas was a time of hope and fear, of reflection and action, confusion about the future and certainty of personal determination. While Lincoln's aides tried to keep him safe, John Wilkes Booth plotted the president's kidnapping; Mary Todd Lincoln searched for peace in the season of remembrance; and a mother and daughter ran for freedom across rivers, through the freezing cold, and ultimately to the front door of the White House.

The music of "A Civil War Christmas" is a spectacular body of work. Local musicians from a broad range of cultural and stylistic backgrounds forged a score that connected music from the Civil War era to modern aesthetics, bringing the lineage of our country's music into great relief. The score is challenging; contrasting lines of divergent songs overlaid on each other, creating dissonance and an urgency to find the resolution.

The performers had the difficult task of singing through the tension of competing notes and melodic lines, singing against other voices and the multiple instrumentalists onstage. This is a demanding work, and it was carried off flawlessly by every person in the show.

To the cast, a true ensemble achievement; congratulations on this radiant play. The remarkable assemblage of Crystal Ann Muñoz, Seth Rue, Val Landrum, Ayanna Berkshire, Susannah Mars, Laila Murphy, Vin Shambry, Andrea Whittle, Kai Tomizawa, Blake Stone, Ted Rooney, Amy Hakanson, Miya Zolkoske, John San Nicolas and Jimmy Garcia bring together these wide-ranging stories and songs into a beautiful whole. The talent represented by this cast is stunning.

Kai Tomizawa shone as the 13-year-old stable hand who decides he wants to fight. Val Landrum is defiant and arrogant as John Wilkes Booth, but as the Quaker Army clerk, she was gentle and strong. Ayanna Berkshire brings tenderness and deep sorrow to the mother remembering her only son, lost to the war: Vin Shambry's passionate intensity seethes through every glorious note (that man has an unbelievable singing voice).

As the protective mother, Andrea Whittle is unflinchingly brave. Susannah Mars brings humanity and compassion to the often misunderstood Mary Todd Lincoln. John San Nicolas delivered a performance as a woman that wasn't a caricature of femininity (quite a feat!), pathos as the soldier Moses who dies in the arms of a visitor, and the levity of the horse, which he played with obvious enjoyment. Crystal Ann Muñoz was delicate and playful as Rose, childish as the Wormley boy, and sly as the Southern aide to Grant.

Jimmy Garcia, Laila Murphy, Ted Rooney, Blake Stone, Seth Rue and Miya Zolkoske appeared in multiple roles. How these actors switched between roles so easily I have no idea. Garcia was Robert E. Lee in fascinating counterpoint with Ulysses S. Grant (Seth Rue). Murphy as an assistant to the President and a conspirator in his kidnapping (as well as an impressive flutist). Rooney gave us a sweet but troubled Lincoln and, to my delight, the Walt Whitman who appeared at the bedsides of ailing soldiers.

Stone was excellent as the lost son in memory; Rue was all over the place as a soldier, Grant, and a conspirator to kidnap Lincoln. And Zolkoske was the terrified girl lost in frigid D.C. looking for the safety of the White House. Amy Hakanson bears special mention as the onstage multi-instrumentalist, playing violin, mandolin, and cello, as well as a speaking member of the ensemble.

Yes, every single cast member was worth mentioning. This is a collective project whose whole owes its success to the strength of its individual members, all pieces functioning together in a harmonious mechanism delivering its haunting message. As a stand-alone piece of work, it is impressive, but "A Civil War Christmas" offers us a reflection of ourselves, if we care to look at it.

Its intentional blending of musical styles and races, the conscious choice to have women playing male roles, shows who we are now as a society; we are relentlessly intertwined, each individual influencing the other, dependent upon each other for any hope of forward motion. Our ability to succeed lies in this diversity.

"A Civil War Christmas" is a reminder of our turbulent past, and of our determination to create a country for everyone. It serves as admonition to press on, to stay engaged in the process of refining the direction of our society. Even when we are at odds with each other, we have found a way to make room for everyone to flourish.

"A Civil War Christmas" runs through December 23 at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St. Portland, Oregon 97205. For tickets and information, call 503-241-1278 or visit http://www.artistsrep.org/onstage/201617-season/a-civil-war-christmas-an-american-musical-celebration/

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.