'A Civil War Christmas' mixes history, music

  • Article by: LISA BROCK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 21, 2011 - 2:29 PM

REVIEW: In new History Theatre production, a big cast embodies multiple story lines, from President Lincoln to a black Civil War soldier.

Joel Raney (seated) and Santino Craven in “A Civil War Christmas” at the History Theatre in St. Paul.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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"A Civil War Christmas", the musical by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel that's currently playing at History Theatre, includes the expected holiday fare of nostalgia, merriment and music. What's unexpected is the broad panoramic historical landscape across which the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright casts this epic work.

Set in December 1864, the play, which is directed by Austene Van, captures a cross-section of America at a pivotal time in its history. Abraham Lincoln has just been elected to a second term, Sherman is marching through Georgia, and the Civil War is showing signs of finally nearing an end. An ensemble of 14 actors alternately narrates and acts out scenes as they tell the intersecting stories of myriad characters, both historical and fictional.

Generals Grant and Lee wait out a cold night with their troops. John Wilkes Booth and a couple of co-conspirators plot the abduction of the president. Lincoln and his cabinet carouse at a holiday party at the War Department. Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Mary Surratt all make appearances.

Interacting with these famous figures are characters who demonstrate the breadth of American society. There's escaped slave Hannah and her young daughter, seeking safety on the streets of Washington D. C.; a young Quaker soldier who has enlisted because of his abolitionist beliefs but takes on a non-combatant role because of his religious beliefs; a Jewish soldier close to death who's comforted by the visiting First Lady. Holiday and period songs, ranging from "Silent Night" to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" to a lively "Rise Up Shepherd and Follow" are woven throughout the action.

One of the most compelling of the many story lines is that of Decatur Bronson, an African-American sergeant bent on assuaging his grief at the loss of his wife by seeking revenge on the battlefield. Santino Craven ably demonstrates the depths of this character's anguish at an intolerable situation. Another fine performance comes from Jan Lee, whose Mary Todd Lincoln is a complex blend of petulance, childlike neediness and awkward grace.

Strong work on the part of the ensemble, however, can only go so far in addressing the hurdles this ambitious play presents. Vogel has included a significant amount of historical detail, but its sheer volume necessitates its treatment being cursory in the extreme. By the second act, transitions from scene to scene begin to feel abrupt and forced, while the number of intersecting storylines and coincidental events multiply to the point that they stretch credulity, so that by the time all is resolved, "A Civil War Christmas" has traversed one very long Christmas Eve night. There are many bright spots in this production, but come prepped for a pop quiz in history as well.

  • A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS

    What: By Paula Vogel. Music by Daryl Waters. Directed by Austene Van. Music direction by J.D. Steele.

    When: 8 p.m. Thurs.-Fri.; 2 & 8 p.m. Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun. Through Dec. 18.

    Where: History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, St. Paul.

    Tickets: $15-$38. 651-292-4323

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