Some musicals just feel right at Christmas; Meet Me in St. Louis, Annie, and even Rent give audiences a little boost of extra warm fuzzies when seen at Christmastime, because they all contain prominent Christmas scenes. These shows are in a different subset than those that are expressly meant to be performed at Christmas. Enter A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, and Elf to name a few. Joining the ranks of the latter subgenre is the new work A Civil War Christmas, playing now through January 3 at Diversionary Theatre in San Diego. With a score that is part traditional carols, part Civil War songs, and part spirituals, Pulitzer-prize winner Paula Vogel crafts an intricate script surrounding a myriad of historical and fictional characters on Christmas Eve, 1864.
(L-R) Brian Bose, Durwood Murray, Skylar Sullivan, Taylor Henderson, and Annie Hinton portray an array of historical characters in A Civil War Christmas. (Photo courtesy of Diversionary Theatre)
Classifying this work warrants some discussion. As a production, Diversionary has created a concert reading of the piece. Actors portrays at least four characters each, carry binders to various music stands, execute simple blocking, and remain onstage in an arc of chairs. At key points, a small choir upstage joins in singing from behind a scrim. The show works successfully in its current concert format, and watching the actors move so swiftly between characters was enjoyable. But it somehow doesn’t seem fitting to call this piece a “jukebox musical,” even though that is essentially what it is.
As a concept, A Civil War Christmas bears resemblance to a work like All Is Calm. Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis audiences may be familiar with the cantata-turned-stage-work that tells the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 when both German and Allied troops laid down arms, rose from the trenches, and celebrated the holiday in fellowship. While All Is Calm weaves together traditional carols from Germany, France, and England, A Civil War Christmas pulls from the American South as well. In many instances, they play off traditional carols surprisingly well. In a brilliant stroke of cleverness, Vogel employs the Maryland state song; did you know it goes to the tune of “O Christmas Tree”? The score prominently uses Negro spirituals, dips into the Quaker tradition, and—in a particularly poignant moment—includes the kaddish, a Hebrew prayer of mourning. The show contains no original music, but the arrangements are masterful.
Playwright Paula Vogel admits looking to A Christmas Carol and Nicholas Nickleby in constructing a tapestry of characters and storylines. While the expected Civil War figures prominently feature in the action, the secondary historical characters prove more fascinating. For example, Skylar Sullivan delivers a careful performance of a burdened Abraham Lincoln and Annie Hinton a portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln that is delightfully both frenetic and sad; however the story of Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s African-American socialite friend and confidante layers over the top and is played with dignity by Taylor Henderson. Vogel sees to it that each storyline intercepts with at least one other. A Civil War Christmas is like the ensemble film Crash with period music and at Christmas.
Other standouts in the cast include Tankia Baptiste who most notably plays a poor Negro working her way to the North with her daughter and who eventually arrives at the White House on Christmas Eve. Adam Cuppy is the chameleon of the show, memorably portraying with ease the likes of John Wilkes Booth, a dying Union solder, a Quaker abolitionist, and a horse. (You read that correctly.) Kim Strassburger directs the whole ensemble cleanly and clearly.
Though A Civil War Christmas premiered at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theater in 2008 and made the regional rounds in following years, this is the San Diego premiere. See it at Diversionary Theatre through January 3.