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CPCC Theatre was still working out some of the technical bugs at the opening night performance of The Civil War on September 23. Truly, there were periods during the evening's performance at the Halton Theater in which the speakers hummed and buzzed like a swarm of mosquitoes and microphones popped like a fly hitting a window – and, even when the sounds system was quiet, it often created a tin-can distortion to a singer's tone, like listening to AM radio. No doubt, the CPCC Theatre crew will sort out these issues, which will be a good thing, since there are a number of fine singers in the production who deserve better.
The Civil War is subtitled "Our Story in Song," and singing makes up nearly the entire substance of the show, with only spare narration from period documents – speeches by Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, for example – providing any spoken element. The songs, by lyricist Gregory Boyd and composer Frank Wildhorn (whose Bonnie and Clyde opens on Broadway in October) are sung by "characters" from three groups: the Union, the Confederacy, and Slaves.
I put the word characters in quotations because there is no true character development. Characters have names, and sometimes the bare bones of a story – a husband and wife separated by war, a husband and wife separated by slavery – but The Civil War is not really about plot. It is about emotion. Basically, war is hell, whether you are fighting for the North or the South.
That's not to say that the music is all sad. There is "This Old Gray Coat," a "let's get 'em, boys" upbeat country tune to rouse the beleaguered Confederates, and a jubilant gospel number led by Frederick Douglass (Justin Moore), "River Jordan," (a musical highlight). By and large, though, the songs – even those with a pop backbeat – are colored in the same, earnest and heartfelt emotional hue.
The play relies on good singing, and while not all of the performers were equally solid, some were excellent. Dan Brunson, as the Union officer, has a rich baritone, best displayed in the opening "Brother, My Brother" and the closing "Glory." Dawn Anthony, as the slave Bessie, and Carmen Coulter, as the slave Harriet, gave stirring, full-voiced accounts of songs like "If Prayin' Were Horses," and "Someday." As a Confederate soldier facing death, Adam Morse did an admirable job with "Sarah," a song to his wife.
The finest moment of the entire show, however, was the song "I Never Knew His Name," sung by Brianna Smith as Nurse Mary. The song itself, about a soldier who dies while in her care, is lovely but not remarkable. But Smith's performance was wonderful – her voice pure and clear (and, thank goodness, not distorted by a bad mike), her pitch sure, and her diction clean.
Special mention goes, too, to violinist Leigh Marsh. The band was on stage, playing behind and underneath the actors, who carried out their actions on a series of well-designed platforms that created interesting tableaux. Each of the musicians did well, but Marsh, in particular, lent a sweet and soulful tone to her many prominent melodies.
The design and set were simple and effective, relying on the moveable platforms, bold red and gold lighting, and a scrim that came down mid-stage to show projections of battle names and dates and their many casualties, along with occasional images of Lincoln or Douglass or uniformed soldiers alive and dead.
Especially for this part of the country, the Civil War is an extraordinarily complex, tangled up piece of history. It would be quite a challenge to really get at that knot in a two-hour musical revue, and The Civil War, which ran on Broadway for just two months, does not. But, as my 13-year-old daughter said as we left the theater, "I learned something." Few arts organizations in Charlotte have made an effort to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of the war's beginning. CPCC Theatre deserves recognition for presenting this production.
The production continues through October 2. For details, see the sidebar.