A Civil War Christmas features a cast of nine sharing interconnecting stories that take place on Christmas Eve, 1864. Characters include Abraham Lincoln (Skyler Sullivan), Mary Todd Lincoln (Annie Hinton), John Wilkes Booth (Adam Cuppy) and a haunted black Union soldier, Decatur Bronson (Durwood Murray).
Those are only a few of the people audiences get to meet throughout the two-act evening. Popular songs are interspersed between dialogue scenes in the play with music such as “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “Silent Night,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “O Christmas Tree.”
Although the script from openly lesbian Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, Paula Vogel, was given a spare staging at the New York Theatre Workshop, director, Kim Strassburger, made the San Diego interpretation “An American Musical Celebration in Concert.” The artists mainly read off of scripts while wearing exquisite costumes from Beth Connelly.
Strassburger’s decision could have made the evening too stiff or visually uninteresting, especially in such a small space. Yet, she creates such an exuberant tone that her creative choice succeeds.
Besides the aforementioned players who depict several roles with wit and depth, Tanika Baptiste, Brian Bose, Taylor Henderson, Cashae Monya and Julia Nardi-Loving excel at portraying real and fictitious people ranging from hilarious to heartbreaking.
Most of the vocals are a delight to listen to, but not all the voices are highly polished. The benefit is that certain
tunes have a raw power that emphasizes the lyrics instead of just the music.
Singing behind a scrim, on Kristen Flores’ set, are members of Encore Vocal Ensemble. Shown visibly with the help of lighting designer Curtis Mueller, the group creates a jovial sound that contributes to the warmth of the festivities.
Music director and pianist Tim McKnight and fiddler Kristopher Apple, give the melodies an intimacy that might have been lost if a bigger orchestra was used. McKnight and Apple are a good fit for the kind of tales that Vogel wrote.
Vogel’s latest work, Indecent, just closed at the La Jolla Playhouse and both dramas have a similar style. They focus on a variety of individuals while incorporating music, history, insightful dialogue and modern relevance.In A Civil War Christmas, Vogel brings up intriguing topics ranging from Abraham’s relationship with the common citizen, to how freedom affected several black men and women. She takes time to shine a light on these issues with finesse.
Vogel’s work can be so ambitious with many different plots, that there comes a point in Act II where she almost writes herself into a corner, having to tie up multiple loose ends. Luckily, the different vignettes have exciting climaxes that feel earned instead of tacked on.
Another tricky element that Vogel pulls off is making the evening heartwarming even with subject matter that reflects the serious reality of the 1800s. She is able to do this with a sense of optimism and hope. When bleak sequences occur, there always seems to be a buoyant one on the horizon.
With additional aid from Blair Nelson’s subtle audio, Strassburger has helmed a sophisticated period piece that should appeal equally to history buffs and humanists. On paper, this might not seem like a feel good night, but the rendition is a rich and rewarding experience.