“Shenandoah,” the 1975 tuner about one family’s refusal to join the Civil War, is such a natural for Ford’s Theater that it’s curious the musical has never played the historic venue. The wait is over, just in time for the spring tourist rush, with the arrival of a spirited and polished revival that’s clearly destined for a future life.
Scott Bakula heads a talented cast whose sturdy voices bring out the best in composer Gary Geld’s engaging songs, offering a sensitive interpretation of James Lee Barrett’s sobering book.
The project was conceived a year ago when, flush with the touring success of his “Big River,” director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun received enthusiastic support from Ford’s honcho Paul Tetrault for a reinvented “Shenandoah.”
Calhoun and his team worked with the show’s original collaborators to shorten and strengthen the story for modern auds, cutting 20 minutes from the original. New orchestrations were written by musical director Steven Landau for an eight-piece orchestra, the original number “Violets and Silver Bells” was deleted and other material was reconfigured.
The result is an engaging new look at a homespun tuner with an antiwar message that seems eerily right for our times. “The living can’t remember, the dead no longer care,” intones Bakula as the volatile and commanding patriarch of the Anderson clan, which farms its rich Virginia soil without the need of slavery that so divides the nation.
Bakula is also excellent in his many musical assignments, especially “The Pickers Are Comin’ ” and “Meditation.”
Calhoun and company have written great sensitivity and attitude into every scene, including a new opening in which the young son discovers a Confederate cap, a prop that becomes the context for the saga to follow. Kevin Clay plays the role, expanded from the original partly to accommodate his sizable acting and singing talents. (His “Why Am I Me?,” joined by spunky Mike Mainwaring as the slave boy, is one of the tuner’s most touching numbers.) The youngster also ends the show in a revised homecoming scene that takes place not in a church, but in the family’s austere graveyard.
The five other sons are equally effective, especially in the rousing “Next to Lovin.’ ” D.C. actor Christopher Bloch is right at home as the minister, while Noah Racey is endearingly shy as the soldier boyfriend. Garrett Long is lovely as the earnest young wife.
The true discovery in the cast is Megan Lewis as the sister, Jenny. Her clarion soprano brings chills with numbers such as “Over the Hill” and “We Make a Beautiful Pair.” Lewis is a prime reason this solid revival is miles above the ordinary.
Set designer Tobin Ost dominates the Ford’s stage with an enormous picture frame that provides an instant metaphor for the assemblage of Civil War soldiers to step into history. It’s a point uniquely made here, with the box where President Lincoln was shot just feet away. It also becomes a powerful vehicle to frame the carnage as brothers fight brothers, with the Anderson family caught in the middle on a protected island.
Ost also designed the costumes, with a keen eye for spartan but stylishly billowing dresses and plain country garb.