It's not every day that you get to see a musical with body counts, but as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, CPCC Theatre has chosen the perfect season for bringing us the Charlotte premiere of Frank Wildhorn's The Civil War. At a time when the nation's economy is stalled and budgets are strapped to the bone, this 1999 musical exemplifies how much can be quixotically attempted with ludicrously little manpower, scenery, props, or narrative.
To depict a war that involved millions of Americans and killed 620,000, Wildhorn and his two collaborators deploy three platoons, one from the Union, one from the Confederacy, and one representing the African-American slaves. For the CP production, director Heather Wilson reduces the size of the original Broadway cast by 25 percent, leaving us a cast of 21 evenly divided among the three groups. Among the Confederates, we have a wife, Sarah McEwen (Kelly Dowless), pining away for her husband (Adam Morse) on the battlefield, while Nurse Mary (Brianna Smith) is tenderly lamenting the wounded and dying Union soldiers.
So Captain Emmett Lochran (Dan Brunson) has five Union soldiers under his command against the same number of rebs fighting for Captain Billy Pierce (John Biggers). The two combined armies at Halton Theater aren't quite enough for one soldier to represent each of the original 13 colonies. And heaven forbid that we lose one of these brave men before Lee surrenders at Appomattox!
There are no simulated battle scenes onstage and no gunsmoke wafting in from the wings. After clamoring for action, soldiers of the North and South shuttle across the stage with wearisome regularity, bemoaning the gore, the grind, the loneliness, the privation, and the dehumanizing effects of battle. Led by the one historical character in the cast, Frederick Douglass (Justin Moore), the blacks have a clearly delineated sequence to follow: chafing under the degradations of slavery, warily hoping as hostilities begin, cheering the Emancipation Proclamation, and ecstatically celebrating their freedom.
This scheme undercuts itself in two key respects. We're clamoring for the action that this loose undermanned pop-song narrative doesn't permit, and we're perplexed by the rigid segregation of the cast — the main sticking point of the whole damn war! To keep some historical momentum going, we get voiceovers from Abraham Lincoln and oracular Southern politicos like Sen. John C. Calhoun. Visually, we get a mix of authentic Civil War photos and a texted rollcall of battles — Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, etc. — with the death tolls projected on each slide.
On that pesky segregation thing, we get a revision of the original Broadway score. Now we begin with one of five new numbers, "Brother, My Brother," that stresses the commonality between the Northerners and Southerners who were about to slaughter one another. Another major re-balancing: "Someday," greeting the Emancipation, has become the Act 1 finale.
The cast and a mini-orchestra led by Craig Estep convince me that this score far outclasses Wildhorn's shrill and schmaltzy Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and stands only in the shadow of his Scarlet Pimpernel. Keep your mind open until you hear "Last Waltz for Dixie" and "Glory" at the end. Brunson gives us a granitic dignity as Lochran, Smith will rip your heart out as Nurse Mary, and CP Summer stalwart Adam Morse gives Corporal Bill McEwen his purest poignancy. Although nobody on campus seems to have the resources to try and make him look like the photos we see of Douglass, Moore portrays him powerfully, and there are fine debuts from Dawn Anthony and Greg Webber.
As leader of the rebels, Biggers was obviously the victim of a Yankee Conspiracy. His microphone thumped throughout Act 1, the spotlight couldn't find him during his solo in the finale, and while Lochran remained armed to the teeth, poor Pierce and his men didn't have a single sword among them to surrender with! No wonder Dixie went down to defeat — but they dressed passably well, thanks to costume designer Jamey Varnadore. Probably working without a budget.