Look away, Dixieland. The Geffen Playhouse’s Civil War-era “Atlanta: The Musical” is one of those “What were they thinking?” enterprises whose intentions become more mysterious, and execution more questionable, with each successive scene. Melange of gospel ballads, bluegrass foot-stompers, Shakespearean posturing and racial tension goes nowhere fast.
Tuner formally resembles Roger Miller’s “Big River” in its reliance on flavorful country mood songs — these by Grammy-winning C&W composer Marcus Hummon — standing independent of period, not so much advancing the story as commenting on it. The difference is that Miller had the forward-racing, suspenseful “Huck Finn” narrative going for him. The plot contrived by Hummon and Adrian Pasdar is bewilderingly inert, turning one of the most eventful periods of American history into a series of stilted dioramas featuring attitudinizing stereotypes.
Logic is defied instantly as Union soldier Paul (a lumpen Ken Barnett, easily 15 years too old to render character’s naivete credible) sings of his coming “hour of trial and dread” with a la-la-la refrain at odds with his alleged unease. Then, with Sherman’s army advancing into Georgia, he somehow elects to assume the identity of dead Rebel Andrew Watson and hook up with the deteriorating regiment of bardolater Col. Medraut (John Fleck), but instead of making efforts to get away, he just stays. And stays.
One would think Confederates in desperate retreat would have more pressing matters on their minds, like survival, but nutsy-cuckoo Medraut demands his slaves perform summer stock for his drunken delectation. Hamlet (Leonard Roberts) is instructed to prep “Andrew” as the troupe’s juvenile, with sultry Cleo (Merle Dandridge) and mischievous Puck (Moe Daniels) indulging in weird Twyla Tharp-like dance moves courtesy of musical stager Kay Cole.
An officer setting up Shakespearean scenes deep in the heart of darkness as a response to war’s lunacy has eerie dramatic potential, but Hummon and Pasdar have nothing so Conradian in mind. Medraut merely flogs his troops south as he calls for sonnets, leaving us to wonder how the (unseen) men feel about all the theatrical goings-on, and why anyone remains with a commander so obviously impaired.
At the same time, Paul exchanges letters with the real Andrew’s woman, Atlanta (JoNell Kennedy), their amorous correspondence facilitated by 1864 Georgia’s surprisingly efficient postal system. Co-helmers Randall Arney and Pasdar don’t go in much for given circumstances. Soldiers stand up in the heat of battle. A chorus of “Oh, Susanna” single-handedly quiets the Union guns. Everyone stays clean and pressed; the increasing chaos never seems to raise the emotional stakes.
It feels almost exploitative when genuine Mathew Brady photos are projected onto upstage screens in a vain effort to convey the realities of a war of which the tuner is otherwise heedless.
The performers are fine singers all, though overdone parts reflect “American Idol”-style showing off; Roberts, Dandridge and Daniels merely offer up generic nobility in their stock roles. Undermanned ensemble forces Travis Johns to fill in as villain, comedy relief and neutral chorister all in one, none to much effect.
Barnett is supposed to reach some sort of epiphany when belief-straining last-minute revelations wrap things up, though he’s no less a simp at the end than he was at rise.
Meanwhile, seemingly aware that his role is wackier than James Mason’s in “Mandingo” (1975), Fleck goes for broke to create a campy, snarling, over-the-top maniac.
Act-two opener “Catch the Dog” details a jolly suppertime hunt for local canines (“barbecued boxer, sauteed spaniel”), offering some consolation to those who missed the pig-blood second act kickoff of “Carrie” back in the day. Cast evidences mirthful high spirits rather than genuine hunger, which may or may not be more objectionable than Puck’s licking her knife during the number.