At a dinner table, Pulitzer Prize winning author Paula Vogel was talking with Molly Smith, the Artistic Director of the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., sharing her dismay about the Arena producing A Christmas Carol once again as a Holiday nugget. Vogel was emphasizing her frustration over why American theatres love to highlight Victorian England and the plights of poverty in that era, instead of telling an American Christmas Carol. One could argue that the play It’s A Wonderful Life fits that bill, but Vogel wanted to tell a new story rooted in history. The fact that she grew up in Washington, D.C. and visited numerous museums, and historical places many times, influenced her tremendously. Currently, at Dobama Theatre, Artistic Director Nathan Motta is presenting A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration, which is the result of that dinner conversation. The musical is embellished with wonderful selections by Composer Daryl Waters.
As you enter the theatre, the set design is impressive. A wooden turntable rests in the middle, that will be powered by actors. A beautiful wooden background creates side stages, and a back wall where projections illuminate the space. (Unfortunately, at the performance I saw, a projection bulb had burnt out minutes before the show. Hopefully, in the future, there will be a replacement bulb on the premise.) You immediately get a sense that we are connected to the past, and the characters are just waiting to tell their stories. At the beginning of the show, we literally meet all the characters, or at least one set of characters, as a subset of the cast play multiple roles. They sing “All Quiet/Silent Night”. It is haunting and beautiful. Then, the stories begin.
Christmas Eve. Washington, D.C. 1864. It’s the coldest December in memory and the country is in the last throes of war. In and around the nation’s capital an escaped slave searches for her daughter, the first lady searches for a Christmas tree, a Union officer’s character is challenged by a young confederate, conspirators plan an assassination, and the President prepares his inaugural address while riding on horseback to retrieve a Christmas gift for his wife. This musical weaves together many characters, story lines, and pieces of music including spirituals, carols, and a setting of the Kaddish. The show reveals the universal and unifying themes of hope, joy, and the beauty of the human spirit.
This cast is formidable.
Matthew Wright* (LINCOLN) His performance is a beautifully structured and convincing honest portrayal, along with a gifted voice. Someone being Lincoln, must handle the assignment like a pro, as to not to make it a caricature. We are not disappointed. Wright is incredibly on point and impressionable.
Juliette Regnier* (MARY TODD LINCOLN) Brilliant performance. Just south of crazytown, she handles Mary’s dysfunction with dignity, and with that journey, is able to make us laugh as normal family dysfunction can, but also break our heart, as in her interaction with the dying Moses Levy (Gombas)
Sally Groth* (CLARA BARTON) Fabulous character, with incredible stage presence, and was a gifted presence to the story.
Nicole Sumlin* (ELIZABETH KECKLEY) Sumlin was on fire. Her characterization was fierce, matched by powerful vocals that moved through your soul with direct emotion. She lit up the stage without any projections, she didn’t need it.
Nathan A. Lilly+ (BRONSON) Watching this tenor voiced actor delve into a darker character and voice was interesting and rewarding. Although, the musical numbers would have benefited with more of a bass tone, Lilly created a solid personification of his journey of “take no prisoners”
Natalie Green+ (RAZ) Green is a fearless performer, and she once again shares her confidence, and unrattled personae to create this male character. At first, I was confused, but after research, realized that a female character playing Raz, a boy, is a traditional “Breeches role.” Meaning it is a male character played by a female actress, which was a custom that was very popular at the time of the Civil War. Nicely done.
Matt O’Shea+ (JOHN WILKES BOOTH) This actor is incredibly talented, and always delivers a masterful performance. O’Shea once again presents fascinating looks at complex and colorful characters.
Katrice Headd+ (HANNAH) Heartbreaking performance. I literally felt the pain of this woman, as she led her character through a journey of love and devotion to her daughter. Their journey is one of the strongest connectable story lines in the show. thanks to Headd’s acting chops.
Vincent Briley (WILLY MACK) Spirited performance. Confident, and engaging, while held beautifully in truth and story.
Tim Tavcar (ROBERT E. LEE), BobKeefe(ULYSSESS.GRANT) These gentleman literally inhabit their characters with stark reality, and seem to be mirror images of the famous men they are portraying. Lashawn Little+ (JIM WORMLEY) Another beautiful character, completely developed and connectable. Andrew Gombas+ (MOSES LEVY/ CHESTER SAUNDERS) Gombas is blessed with an incredible stage presence, but even more, a connectivity with the audience, which, by the way, is one of the strongest I have seen in Cleveland theatre for quite a while. A master of being so open, honest and charming, but then being able to find deeper levels of truth within the character, and the results are golden nuggets of acting. Watching someone die on stage is tough, but it is even more dramatic and powerful, when you connect with someone so much, you actually FEEL a loss as an audience member. Fabulous performance.
Brian Mueller+ (JOHN SURRAT) What i really remember about you is your musicianship, and a gorgeous voice. You fit perfectly into this cast of historical characters.
Caris Collins (JESSA) This young lady held her own and then some in the show. Strong, fearless, and not afraid to push herself physically to embody what her character had to go through. She was right on target.
*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, +Equity Membership Candidate
Act One of this musical is not as aspiring as Act Two. There are too many characters, and too many scene snippets to become connected. But, there were moments. The song “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, was the first real power moment of the show. This song is often described as an American folk song that was used by members of the Underground Railroad to secretly communicate directions to runaway slaves. Telling them to follow the Big Dipper. It was very moving. As we meet the characters, vocals abilities run from serviceable to strong, but dips are overcome with deft character portrayals.
Act Two spends more time on the storylines and familiar characters, and thus, becomes incredibly more engaging. Several of the musical numbers moved me. My favorites: Lilly leading “Yellow Rose of Texas”, Sumlin and Heaad “There is a Balm in Gilead”, Regnier and Gombas in a spellbinding “Silent Night”, and Sumlin took us all to church in a Mega-Bus driving “Ain’t that A-Rocking”.
Director/C0-Music Director Nathan Motta. Nice Work, and the staging was crisp. Also, kudos for bringing Co-Musical Director/Keyboard Jordan Cooper on board. He is a talent.
Ben Needham created a great Scenic Design, as did Marcus Dana on his Lighting Design. Tesia Dugan Benson did some fine work on the Costume Design. Great looks. Richard Ingraham does his excellent work once again on Sound Design. From what I hear, Jennifer Sherman’s Projection Design is great, sadly, I didn’t get a chance to enjoy it. Big shout out to the horse, designed by Mark Jenks. David Tilk once again kicks ass as Technical Director. Stage Manager Megan Mingus* called a great show.
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$10-$28 Reserved Seating
2340 Lee Road
Cleveland Heights, OH 44118