Civil War musical aims to please too well

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Michael Toscano

Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, at Ford’s Theatre through May 20, focuses on the War Between the States as seen through the eyes of everyday people, from soldiers to slaves. The musical is part of a series of programs created to observe the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination, which took place on April 15, 1865.
Photo by Scott Suchman

The temptation to begin this review with the old adage about not learning from history and thus being doomed to repeat it is overwhelming.

The history in question is not the Civil War, even though the show is titled, Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. No, at issue is the history of producers and writers who set out to amend or improve a show, but end up making the same mistakes as the original team.

The show, onstage at Ford’s Theatre through May 20, has dramatically moving moments and a few stirring songs, but is diminished by some indistinguishable tunes and ridiculously misplaced political correctness.

This substantially sung-through history journey is a re-worked and abbreviated version of the sprawling show The Civil War, which Ford’s presented half a dozen years ago. It is part of the special series of shows and events the theatre has created for the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s assassination.

Like the original, it features Lincoln’s words from texts of his letters and speeches, together with song lyrics and monologues based on the letters of a variety of people making their way through this horrific period of clashing creeds, cultures and cash.

There are worthwhile moments here, things to appreciate. But the production is hampered in both design and execution. 

Young, earnest cast

Directed by Tony nominee Jeff Calhoun, who also directed The Civil War, this is an achingly earnest production. The cast is on the young side, with a few veterans of local stages mixed in, and they are so eager to please that some of the grit of the subject matter is worn away.

It doesn’t help that much of the music is blandly pop, rather than period, played loudly to compensate for the lack of evocation of the time and place of the subject matter.

 Oh, there are occasional flashes of the period — an old-sounding fiddle passage here or there. But not nearly enough. The 21 performers do showcase impressive singing talent — transcendent in a few songs, but otherwise underutilized in a haze of notes and decibels.

Early in act one, the double song “By the Sword/Sons of Dixie” is a stirring anthem, as the company raises the fever and heat of war to a high pitch. That leads to “The Peculiar Institution,” as the company continues working magic and curdles that raised blood with the horror of the lash on flesh. 

“Candle in the Window” is a pop tune sung with the power of gospel voices. In “Freedom’s Child,” Kevin McAllister, as a fugitive slave, leads the company with a brawny bass that commands rapt attention and then rises to soft emotion as this runaway black man tries to find his place and his pride in a new world.

“The Last Waltz for Dixie” is, perhaps appropriately, a modern country number meant as a paean to the Lost Cause. It’s pleasant enough, even if one doesn’t mourn the Cause.

Odd choices

Calhoun has his cast smoothly utilize all of the stage, with scenic designer Tobin Ost’s striking set featuring a stylized shell representing Lincoln’s office. The actors move about efficiently in the otherwise sparsely decorated space, changing roles and costumes.

But the director undermines some of the seriousness of the enterprise by turning Lincoln’s hat into a silly fetish. It’s one thing to see the stovepipe hanging atop a long black coat, or occupying a corner of a desk-table. That identifies the space as Lincoln’s and is poignantly evocative.

But it is quite another thing to see actors cast adoring eyes in its direction, or take the thing in their hands, fondling it as a silly-shaped talisman while speaking the great man’s words.

And on the subject of iconic imagery, it was quite jarring for me to see the bold colors of the Confederate Stars and Bars battle flag ostentatiously displayed just below the box where Lincoln was shot. Really? Right there?

Those are quibbles, though, when compared to the major structural fault of the original material, which the adaptors have not repaired and may have aggravated.

Too politically correct?

You see, this is a Civil War with three sides: the North, the South, and the slaves. The North and the South, as depicted here, are two morally equal entities. It’s oh-so-sad, this war, and soldiers and families alike suffer horribly, regardless of their loyalties.

Yet, it is all oddly divorced from political and social reality. The slaves are seen as a distinctly separate unit, not really attached to one side or the other, but nevertheless vitally interested in the outcome.

It is an exercise in the silliest of political correctness, as the writers seem afraid to remind us that some of these people put their lives on the line in defense of a system keeping other people in perpetual and brutal bondage for their own comfort and profit. You will forgive me if I don’t see a moral equivalence between the two sides, regardless of some of the less-than-lofty motives of some of the warriors in blue.

True, factors other than slavery were involved above and below the Mason-Dixon Line — including cultural affinity for one’s region and economic self-interest. But all we get here is some yearning for the genteel and courtly Old South from the boys and men in gray. 

Lincoln’s words speak to the cause of the Union, but we don’t really see why those in the north followed him. In fact, the only sentiment we get from a combatant on either side related to slavery is from a Union soldier who says he’s not really interested in laying down his life on behalf of slaves.

While that sentiment is historically accurate for many, its inclusion here as the sole reference to the subject is oddly unbalanced.

Kudos to lighting designer Michael Gilliam and projection designer David Budries, who do marvelous work creating dazzling imagery, never more so than in “How Many Devils,” as the steadily increasing death count of the war is made palpable. As the soldiers sing in mounting step-by-step cadence, the drum beating, the numbers projected onto the stage tell a staggeringly horrifying tale of spilled blood and death. The numbers move in and out and eventually overwhelm the senses.

At a trim 90 minutes, the new Freedom’s Song has a few exciting songs, and several moving moments. But even though his name is in the title, the Lincoln we see here is only the man in the Memorial — a figure in stone for the ages.

His words are recited in stentorian tones, not the pitches and accents of a wily lawyer and master politician with the soul of a poet. It’s not about him, really, and by avoiding some unpleasant realities, it’s not really about us, either.

Show times and prices

Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War continues through May 20 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth St. NW, Washington. 

Show times: Mondays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. (except April 6, 13 and 14); Fridays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. (except May 1 and 8). Additional weekday matinees at 2 p.m. on May 1 and 8.

There will be audio-described performances on Tuesday, April 21 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 2 at 2 p.m. A captioned performance is scheduled for Saturday, May 9 at 2 p.m., and a sign-interpreted performance will occur Thursday, April 30 at 7:30 p.m.      

Tickets range from $20 to $69. Patrons 60 and older may purchase discounted tickets to weekday and weekend matinees in the premium orchestra and rear orchestra. The weekday matinee discounted price is $30; $40 on weekends.

Tickets are available at www.fords.org and via Ticketmaster at (800) 982-2787. 

Ford’s Theatre is accessible to persons with disabilities, offering wheelchair-accessible seating and restrooms, as well as audio enhancement.

For information, call (202) 347-4833. For information and tickets, visit www.fords.org.