Civil War Christmas: Review Roundup

Bob Stillman

New York Theatre Workshop’s production of A Civil War Christmas, Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s new musical play that interpolates period songs, has opened Off-Broadway to very positive reviews. The show made its world premiere in 2008 at Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, Conn. The creative team includes Paula Vogel (book), Daryl Waters (music arrangements), Tina Landau (direction), Andrew Resnick (musical direction), James Schuette (sets), Toni-Leslie James (costumes), Scott Zielinski (lights), and Jill BC Du Boff (sound). The cast includes Sumaya Bouhbal (Jessa, etc.), Jonathan-David (Ely Parker, etc.), K. Todd Freeman (Decatur Bronson, etc.), Amber Iman (Hanna, etc.), Karen Kandel (Elizabeth Keckley, etc.), Sean Allan Krill (Robert E. Lee, John Wilkes Boot, etc.), Chris Henry (Ulysses S. Grant, etc.), Rachel Spencer Hewitt (Mary Surratt, etc.), Antwayn Hopper (Walker Lewis, etc.), Alice Ripley (Mary Todd Lincoln, etc.), and Bob Stillman (Abraham Lincoln, etc.).

Melissa Rose Bernardo (Entertainment Weekly): Paula Vogel has the perfect holiday antidote: A Civil War Christmas. … There are carols – of the “O Tannenbaum” variety, as opposed to “Frosty the Snowman” – but they’re interspersed with a heavy helping of period tunes. … And though they’re beautifully sung and filled with joy, there’s nothing jingle-bell jolly about them. … In fact, she’s crafted something both timely and quietly moving: a Christmas-themed portrait of a politically (and racially) segregated nation and a controversial president about to embark on his second term. … With 11 actors and more than 30 characters populating the Christmas Eve 1864-set tale, a little confusion is inevitable. … But Landau’s staging is mostly taut and uncluttered. … A-

Jennifer Farrar (AP): Who knew Abraham Lincoln could play the violin and accordion? In Paula Vogel’s warm, non-saccharine vision, the Lincoln character pitches in to do that and more in her sprightly, intellectual musical play, A Civil War Christmas. The crazy-quilt production … is a sweeping, literate and entertaining tale of intersecting spiritual myths and American history on the bitterly cold Christmas Eve of 1864. Pulitzer Prize-winner Vogel includes racism and prejudice, yet also goodness and tolerance. … Landau’s creative staging inform affecting vignettes and foreshadowings. … For a country still cleaved by politics nearly 150 years after the Civil War, Vogel’s focus on decency and commonalities sends a hopeful message.

David Gordon (Theater Mania): This compelling theatrical experience weaves together dozens of characters, fact, fiction, Christmas carols, spirituals, and Civil War songs into an unapologetically messy ­– richly crafted – patchwork quilt. … Tina Landau’s staging … is smooth and swift, despite occasionally confusing double and triple casting, a necessity for a small production with a cast of characters as large as this. Stillman and Ripley bring appropriate gravitas to the Lincolns, imbuing them with a haunted quality, as if they know that the glimmers of hope they experience as Christmas occurs will be short lived. For us, this is especially sad, knowing how their story tragically concludes just four months later.

Charles Isherwood (N.Y. Times): Written with an embracing expansiveness by Ms. Vogel, and featuring handsomely sung hymns and carols of the period, this unusual holiday pageant represents an illuminating alternative to the often garish or sentimental holiday fare. … A Civil War Christmas is rich in precise historical detail, but it never feels like a series of talking dioramas in a history museum. Even the most quickly sketched characters exude the warmth of real human beings, thanks to vivid performances from the cast. … And when the actors’ voices rise together in song … there arises from the dark history being told an ineffable sense of wonder at the survival of faith and humanity even in hearts ravaged by loss.

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