With the holidays and their all-encompassing cheer afoot, 1st Stage Theatre in Tysons is putting a historical spin on the season with their showing of “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration.”
Taking place in 1864 on Christmas Eve in Washington, D.C., the play weaves together the stories of characters, both historical and fictional, and how the spirit of Christmas causes the aptly dramatic mix of joy and sorrow found during the holidays. Buttressing this through line is an elegant array of music that oscillates between full-fledged songs and emotional cues to the audience, providing a nice accent to a monologue or scene. While holiday classics such as “Silent Night” and “O Christmas Tree” make an appearance, the music is mainly comprised of original scores attached to a specific character and sentiment.
1st Stage does a masterful job of keeping a play with so many moving parts grounded. The opening scene can be a bit overwhelming with each actor making an appearance in one role, attention shifting elsewhere on the stage followed by the spotlight turning back to the same actor in the same garb yet in a different role. But the performers clearly made it a point to switch up their demeanor, accent and delivery in order to make the distinction easier to interpret even if there was little physical difference from one role to the next.
This is the case with some of the actors in prominent roles, such as Rebecca Ballinger as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, V. Savoy McIlwain’s role as African-American Union soldier Decatur Bronson, Ayanna Hardy’s portrayal of the First Lady’s confidant and former slave Elizabeth Keckley and Joshua Simon, who played everyone from Ulysses S. Grant to one of Mosby’s Raiders as well as a wounded Union soldier and, most notably, John Wilkes Booth. But each member of the ensemble wears a lot of hats throughout the show and deserves credit for being able to draw bold lines between one character and the next.
Musically, the play is astounding and is appropriately the production’s strongest element. 1st Stage was able to avoid the schticky nature of musicals where actors will often give a wink and a nod to the audience right before they break out into song, and instead coolly blend the transition of a scene’s dialogue into its next musical number. Every cast member is perfectly equipped to handle songs both slow and intimate as well as boisterous and lively, and the three-person “orchestra” of a pianist, percussionist and strings player made their presence felt despite their size.
1st Stage’s artistic director Alex Levy told the News-Press the play’s breadth of actors and roles allowed the crew to tinker with everything from the introduction and presentation of certain characters. Furthermore, Levy acknowledged the challenge that came with having 10 of the 12 cast members serving in their 1st Stage debut, but also the air of freshness that a new cast in a new environment can bring to a production.
The only knock has nothing to do with 1st Stage’s work but on playwright Paula Vogel’s inconsistent historical depth. Vogel deserves praise for making Keckley’s path to freedom a part of the play along with using Decatur Bronson as a stand-in for real life hero and Medal of Honor recipient James Bronson and touching on Todd Lincoln’s manic behavior. But outside of those examples, most of the other historical figures Vogel employs — including Abraham Lincoln — possess the same surface-level snippets students would get in public school. The play was more a take on the unifying feeling of the holidays that uses the strife of the Civil War as a foil to create tension, rather than bring a some historical substance to the table on its own.
But that’s a somewhat persnickety quibble with the play. All-in-all, 1st Stage puts on a memorable performance for a play that is hard to pull off.
“A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration” runs until Dec. 23 at 1st Stage Theatre (1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons). For information on showtimes and tickets, visit 1ststagetysons.org.