The relevance of revisiting this country’s most deadly inner-struggle in the light of today’s political polarization became increasingly apparent as The Barn Theatre’s season-opening production, “The Civil War,” unfolded Tuesday evening on the stage of the Augusta, MI playhouse.
Under the direction of Barn producer Brendan Ragotzy, “The Civil War” is not your ordinary musical.
It does have a score, by Frank Wildhorn (‘Jekyll and Hyde,” ”The Scarlet Pimpernel”) with book and lyrics by Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, but the physical action definitely is kept to a minimum.
The music is a combination of the rhythms of the late 1800s — gospel, country and folk — and some of the “dialogue” comes straight from the icons of the period — Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth — but the strength of its passion comes from the thoughts and feelings of the typical foot soldiers, the women they left behind and the slaves they were fighting over, either to free or to keep in bondage.
As the story of the horrific confrontations begins and continues to escalate, it is presented primarily as a staged concert, with sharply spare action on a “playing field” as divided as the North and South.
There is minimal dialogue but lots and lots of music and, happily, a goodly number of excellent voices!
The many of the vocal solo strengths belong to the “slaves,” a sextet of individuals who blended beautifully when it was required and delivered impassioned solos, especially Shinnerrie Jackson, Rendell Debose and Ryan Carter Johnson. Michael Fisher was effective as Frederick Douglass.
The Union troops are led by guest artist Robert Newman who sets the scene for the coming conflict in “Brother. My Brother.” The Rebel officer who longs for “Virginia” is Patrick Hunter, with guest artist Fee Waybill as a grizzled Confederate officer attached to “This Old Gray Coat.”
A score of young faces on both sides of the battle lines are especially
effective in underscoring the massive number of casualties (more than 660,000 by the war’s end), the stolid poignancy with which they cloaked their yearnings for home and family and their struggle to accept the inevitable.
Barn favorite Charlie King put his guitar/banjo expertise to good use as a Union soldier whose defiant picking is aimed at keeping flagging spirits as high as possible.
On the home front, the effect of the carnage on those who stood and waited for the outcome and crushing aftermath is in the hands and voices of four women — all designated as Sarah — who stood strong both in victory and crushing defeat.
Most of the characters are identified, even in solos, only as Slaves or Union or Confederate Soldiers, so it is difficult to give individual credit. Luckily, although some are vocally stronger and more secure, all are equal to their assigned roles and their “sides,” easily identified by blue or gray uniforms.
The playing space is divided into platform levels. One side is hung with Confederate flags and the other, with more familiar Union banners. The center playing area is divided between stars and stripes.
Space is obviously limited and actually not necessary, especially when the two armies march out at the same time, almost touching before turning away. The physical proximity adds another layer to the story.
In the manner of Ken Burns’ PBS epic on this war, the background is frequently filled with photos of Civil War battles and casualties, emphasizing the utter despair of the conflict.
Under the direction of pianist/conductor John Jay Espino, the six member orchestra hits just the right notes to underscore the fluctuating emotions as the war continues.
The end does not come with high kicks and happy bows but “The Civil War” is the perfect theatrical vehicle to remind us of what was and what cannot be again.
“THE CIVIL WAR” plays through Sunday in the playhouse on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit WWW.barntheatreschool.org