At once simpler and more ambitious than his “Jekyll & Hyde” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” composer Frank Wildhorn’s latest Broadway-bound opus is not so much a traditional musical as a revue-style presentation of a song cycle. Wildhorn and co-creators Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd impose precious little narrative structure on “The Civil War,” preferring instead to integrate individual, self-contained vignettes as elements in a thematically consistent but essentially bookless concert.
The mixed bag of a show, clearly a work in progress, is currently evolving during a world-premiere production at Houston’s Alley Theater before an April 1999 Broadway opening. Far more drastic changes will doubtless occur if and when , as is expected, vet director Jerry Zaks takes over the production.
Often reminiscent of a ’70s pop “concept album,” a la Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection,” “The Civil War” finds Wildhorn working in a variety of musical styles — pop, power ballad, country, gospel, traditional Broadway razzle-dazzle — to convey what the program notes describe as the “emotional landscape” of the most divisive period in American history. Drawing inspiration — and, occasionally, narrative snippets — from letters, journals and official documents of the period, Wildhorn and his collaborators attempt to view the conflict from both sides of the battlefield, as well as through the eyes of civilians, slaves and not-so-innocent bystanders.
Rear-screen projections of photos, paintings and letters evoke the period setting. Otherwise, however, “Civil War” is aggressively “timeless” in its pursuit of universal truths. Although the program offers a traditional list of actors and their roles, hardly anyone onstage is ever identified by name, indicating that the audience is meant to view these characters as Everymen and Everywomen. The costumes are frankly anachronistic — for the soldiers, mere hints of military insignia amid leather and denim — and the undisguised use of head mikes recalls “Rent,” or a Janet Jackson musicvideo.
Unfortunately, despite the fluid movement and imaginative groupings in many individual scenes, “Civil War” never achieves a sense of narrative momentum, and utterly fails at making the audience aware of the months and years passing between musical episodes.
The few attempts at thematic consistency seem vague and half-baked. Linda Eder (Wildhorn’s regular leading lady) plays a battlefield nurse who, apparently , is meant to appear as an angel who murmurs lullabies to fallen soldiers. Not exactly an original concept, but one that might prove effective if better thoughtout. (Eder’s costumes, particularly the unbecoming sheer gown she wears for her final appearance, should also be reconsidered.)
At times, continuity is achieved by the linkage of emotional epiphanies: A homesick soldier writes home to his wife (“Sarah”), then the wife considers her future as a war widow (“The Honor of Your Name”). For the most part, however, each song in “Civil War” comes across as a self-contained unit. There is no cumulative impact to the production, only a series of show-stoppers in search of a show to stop.
In addition to “Sarah” (sung by a plaintively effective David Lutken) and “The Honor of Your Name” (a fine commingling of sorrow, pride and resolve by Irene Molloy), the highlights include “If Prayin’ Were Horses,” a sublimely sorrowful number sung by married slaves (Michel Bell, Cheryl Freeman) separated on the auction block, and “River Jordan,” a rousing, gospel-flavored first-act finale with the dynamic Lawrence Clayton leading a chorus of fellow slaves.
(Give “Civil War” this much credit: Unlike many more serious treatments of the War Between the States, the show insists on treating African-Americans as equal participants, not comic relief or noble abstractions.)
The show gets off to a promising, lively start with “By the Sword/Sons of Dixie,” a robustly cocky double chorale sung by Union and Confederate soldiers on their way to battle, and then quickly gets serious with “Tell My Father,” a hauntingly affecting song by a dying soldier. In a large cast, Jesse Lenat makes himself conspicuous, for better or worse, as a traveling pimp and whiskey-peddler whose greedy cynicism is presented as comic relief. Think of the character as the love child of Mother Courage and the Master of Ceremonies from “Cabaret.”
Mood swings are dramatic and frequent throughout the show, though it quickly becomes obvious that, as a composer, Wildhorn is a magician with a limited number of tricks up his sleeve. On more than one occasion, what starts out sounding like a reprise turns out to be a different but quite similar song.
“The Civil War” may turn out to have more of a future far away from Broadway, and it could become a staple of concert halls and other pop- and country-music venues. At the Alley Theater, the show gets a technically first-rate production, with invaluable contributions from lighting designer Howell Binkley and projections designer Wendall K. Harrington. But the singing is much too heavily amplified in the relatively small house, often to the detriment of the score and the discomfort of the listener.