By Geary Danihy
How many characters can you cram into a Christmas musical? Well, judging by the premier of A Civil War Christmas, “An American Musical Celebration” by Paula Vogel, the answer is, altogether too many.
In this latest offering by Long Wharf Theatre, Vogel has managed to stitch together a potboiler plot that includes, but, please note, is not limited to, the following characters: Abraham Lincoln and his entire War Cabinet, Mary Todd Lincoln, U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, John Wilkes Booth and his accomplice in assassination dementia, Mary Surratt, Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, several of Mosby’s Raiders, an ex-slave who is now a Union soldier, a Jewish Union soldier, a Quaker Union soldier, a young Southern lad, accompanied by an emotive horse, who is bent on joining the Raiders and a runaway slave and her young daughter.
What? No born-again Buddhist drummer boys? What about the Russians, the Chinese and the Hawaiians? How about Mark Twain – he joined up with the Rebs (for a while); why not throw in Mathew Brady, so he can take a group picture to be used as a Christmas card?
This tedious effort at politically correct inclusion (did Kwanza exist in 1864?) got off on the wrong foot even before it started when the theater decided to hold the curtain for 20 minutes so that late-comers, late-late-comers and stand-bys could be seated, and then extended the wait for the captive audience with the de rigueur curtain-talk, during which all and sundry were thanked for their support.
Once the show began, it quickly became apparent the audience would need a scorecard to keep track of all the characters popping up here and there on stage. Designed more as a mini-series than a musical, with just a touch of a school pageant and a History Channel documentary, Vogel’s creation follows at least five plot lines: we have Decatur Bronson (a composite of two African-American Medal of Honor winners, Decatur Dorsey and James Bronson) determined to be reunited with his wife and swearing that he will take no prisoners; then there’s Abe and his wife Mary – shades of Gift of the Magi here as he sets out at night, alone, to retrieve a Christmas present for Mary while she goes in search of, and steals, a Christmas tree in hopes of brightening her husband’s spirits; Abe’s nighttime trip is of intense interest to John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts, who plan to kidnap the president; Raz, the young Southern boy, and his recalcitrant horse, Silver, are wandering the countryside seeking to join up with Mosby’s Raiders; and finally there is the tale of Hannah, an escaped slave who makes it to Washington with her daughter, Jessa (echoes of Dickens’ Little Nell and Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl), whom she sends on a quest to find the White House and seek help from the president. Got all that?
Will Lincoln meet up with little Jessa? Will John Wilkes Booth pull off his nefarious plan? Will Raz join up with the Raiders, and what about Bronson’s vow to take no prisoners?
Well, as things go in mini-series, the plot lines intertwine, characters bump into other characters, and everything is eventually resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Oh, yes, along the way quite a few Christmas carols are nicely sung and a Christmas tree somehow manages to grow to twice its size once it is decorated.
About all you can say for this tangled, cliché-ridden web of plots is that it is well meaning, but it takes more than a show’s heart being in the right place to make it entertaining. There are some good moments, many of them supplied by Susannah Flood as Raz and J. D. Goldblatt as the trusty horse, Silver (it would take too long to explain), and Diane Sutherland renders a delightfully neurotic Mrs. Lincoln. Mention should also be made of set designer James Schuette’s work in creating a setting that allows for all of the plots to be acted out with a minimum of visual confusion, and Tina Landau’s Herculean directorial effort in keeping this massive endeavor from tumbling into the abyss of chaos.
As a Christmas offering, A Civil War Christmas best serves the function of reminding us just how grueling the holidays can be, what with all the running around, dressing up, and gathering together with folks we’re not too familiar with, and may not even like, in a whirl of parties that, in the end, leaves us exhausted.
A Civil War Christmas runs through Sunday, Dec. 21. For tickets or more information call 787-4284 or go to www.longwharf.org.