PART MUSICAL, PART HISTORY LESSON THIS PLAY IS AMERICA’S REAL CHRISTMAS CAROL AND SHOULD BE ON EVERY THEATRE FAN’S HOLIDAY BUCKET LIST.
THTC continues their “Generations” season and takes us back to Christmas Eve 1864 in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. The presentation of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration is a unique Christmas tale, and is now on stage at the Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette through December 16th. Vogel presents a patchwork quilt of stories and characters spanning age, race, religion and social cultures. Using a mix of historical icons who are composites of real and fictional people, all based on fact.
Town Hall Artistic Director Susan E. Evans says “I have wanted to produce A Civil War Christmas for a long time. There is something about the way Paula Vogel interweaves all the characters narratives - The word “communion” lodges in my mind with this show - but as in “sharing” coming together as one.” The script includes traditional Christmas carols arranged by Daryl Waters, folk songs, and carols like “O Christmas Tree,” which borrowed its music from the German carol “Oh Tannenbaum”, highlight each tale. Music Director Margaret Halbig brings each song its own character with her two-piece band with Caleb Phair on piano, and Isabelle Del Sesto on strings.
Director Dawn Monique Williams brings together a stunning cast of 14 actors who all play multiple characters switching roles with ease. “Perhaps there hasn’t been a time in our country’s history that we were more divided than we are now since the Civil War,” says Director Williams. She goes on, “Paula’s play (is) a moving, clever, and intersectional look at American lives on one night when a prisoner became a guest and an enemy became a host.” The stories are rooted in the real tragedy of the times, but Vogel creates the right amount of lightness with humor and most of all hope, into one of the most challenging times in our young nation’s history.
A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS is much more than a mere holiday show; it is a collection of living vignettes that chronicle this period of darkness in the nation’s history. It is a snapshot of people coping with the unthinkable and the incomprehensible while attempting to “celebrate” the holidays under stressful conditions. The stories involve the most brutal winter as temperatures plunge below freezing. Over the course of the night, the following stories unfold, intertwine then cross together in the end.
Pictures by Jay Yamada
TICKETS 925.283.1557. www.TownHallTheatre.com.
It begins with an introduction that sets the time and stage as cast members sing “All Quiet Along the Potomac” and “Silent Night”. The scene shifts to five hundred miles north where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has sat down to compose his work “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. Back south of the Potomac, General Lee is offered “real coffee” brought back from the north by Rebel raiders. He refuses, stating “If my men have no coffee, I will have no coffee.” Across the river, General Grant is being plied with coffee by his camp to keep him sober as the war continues. Fifteen miles away, Lincoln sits and ponders a dream where he is on a ship at a distant shore as “three wise men” Lee, Grant and Lincoln are in the shadows.
Everything in this production serves a purpose and elegantly tells the tale Vogel spins, touching our hearts, and inspiring us to feel the pain of the characters. Williams does bring laughs and humor to the Town Hall stage. Her direction is taut and thoroughly engrossing. The actors enter the stage from the wings in nondescript period street clothes; at times they dress themselves and each other in a uniform jacket or hoop skirt, corset or a hat to create the characters. They break the fourth wall to provide narrative throughout. Some roles cross gender boundaries and even the boundary of the non-human kind with a mule and a horse played by young flawless Jason Gray. Much is left to the imagination and the power of the performances that each actor brings to the many roles they play.
The cast includes the elegant Reginald Clay, the powerhouse Elizabeth Curtis, Jason Gray, seven year-old Eleanor "Ellie" Harris, Nick Mandracchia, Shannon Mauldin, the compelling Khary L. Moye, Morgan Pavey, Lindsey Schmeltzer, Jeunée Simon, Terrance Smith, Alicia von Kugelgen, and local favorite Dan Wilson. They all perform many characters including the vibrant Tom Reilly who brings a very human Abraham Lincoln, and banner Walt Whitman to the many stories. This troupe of actors are marvelous in this production and together, they swiftly glide in and out of different roles with perfection.
The sold-out opening night audience was singing along with some of the carols and was moved by the two hour performance. In order for this to work, the timing and coordination of all involved must be perfect and Williams scores that with pride. Liliana Duque Piñeiro's Set Design is detailed with a farmhouse setting which is versatile for the White House and easy to move; Elena Childs’ props that stand out that include vintage guns, benches, a Christmas Tree, farm tools and lanterns. The authentic design never gets in the way of the actors or their emotionally charged provoking words. Delayne Medoff's Lighting Design moves with the cast as they enter and exit the stage, the star set lights pour out into the Town Hall theatre and keep the Christmas Spirit glowing.
Denise Altaffer's Costume Design dresses the cast is period pieces that can be altered or changed out easily as they shift from character to character. Many of the costumes are set in dark hues, making the colorful pieces more eye-catching. Stage manager Michelle Hoselton is also on cue getting the 14 actors on and off stage, as the set changes are mostly handled by the company. Tim Allen's Sound Design is crisp, ensuring that music, lyrics, and spoken dialogue are all heard without the use of many mics, as he mixed the small onstage band to blend well with the many songs.
The story is gripping and grand in its Holiday scope. In the end you will truly understand more of what it was like to live through this Civil War period of history. The play is a mix of the light-hearted, feel-good fare with the dark reality of that cold Christmas Eve. Paula Vogel's A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL CELEBRATION is a serious feast of artistry and skill that moves audiences through many emotions without leaving a single dry eye in the house. Up next at Town Hall is WOMEN IN MIND opening in March and SENSE & SENSIBILITY set for summer of 2018. In the meantime it's important that you add A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS to your Holiday Calendar. This promises to be a sell-out.
Town Hall Theatre Presents
A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS:
An American Musical Celebration
by Paula Vogel, Music by Daryl Waters
Directed by Dawn Monique Williams
Music Direction by Margaret Halbig
ONLY THROUGH December 16, 2017
Town Hall Theatre Company,
3535 School Street, Lafayette, CA 94549.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission
TICKETS 925.283.1557 www.TownHallTheatre.com
Pictures by Jay Yamada
Town Hall Theatre “Generations” Season 2017-2018 celebrates this holiday season with the warm and deeply-moving musical play, A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: An American Musical Celebration, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel, with music by Daryl Waters. A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS will have 12 performances, including two previews, November 30 through December 16, 2017, at Town Hall Theatre Company, 3535 School Street, in Lafayette, CA. Tickets are $18 - $30, and are available through the Box Office at (925) 283-1557 or online at www.TownHallTheatre.com.