A Civil War Christmas” strives for the epic dramatic sweep of musicals like “Ragtime”: It ambitiously tackles multiple intertwined plot lines, weaves together historical and fictional characters to present a rich portrait of a specific time, and it’s pretty darn long, pushing three hours on opening night.
Like the musical “Dessa Rose,” which Firehouse Theatre produced a few years back, the show also refreshingly features black actors in prominent roles and illuminates aspects of the American experience not explored nearly enough on stage or screen.
Unfortunately, this “Christmas” suffers in comparison to those other shows. No single plotline delivers a significant emotional wallop, few of the songs truly soar, and many of the characters zip on and off stage too quickly for you to care much about their welfare. When you invest as much time in a show as is demanded with this one, you want more in return.
That said, diamonds are hiding in this overgrown rough. The show opens in Washington on Christmas Eve 1864, with the South heading toward defeat in the brutal Civil War. But President Abraham Lincoln (Christopher Hartman) is more concerned with making sure his emotionally unstable wife, Mary Todd (Grey Garrett) has an appropriate Christmas gift. An escaped slave and her daughter (Raven Wilkes and Debora Crabbe) struggle to find refuge in the nation’s capital. An underage Southern teenager (Rebecca Turner) sneaks his way into the Confederate ranks only to immediately confront the rage of Bronson, a sergeant formerly in charge of a regiment of U.S. Colored Troops (Jeremy Morris).
These are only the most prominent of nearly a dozen different stories touched on. Among them there are some standout performances. Morris expertly inhabits the character of Bronson, working his way through the sorrow of having his wife kidnapped by Confederate soldiers, and also shows flexibility in portrayals of Gen. U.S. Grant’s aide de camp and a member of the president’s cabinet. Playing Elizabeth Keckley, one of the capital’s most prominent black women and Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidant, Kyma Lassiter offers intriguing insight into the parallel power structures that existed in white and black social circles.
Lassiter also lends her clear singing voice to some of the evening’s most stirring musical numbers, “What Child Is This?” and “Ain’t That A’Rocking.” The show’s song list consists mostly of old Christmas standards such as “The Holly and the Ivy” and “O Christmas Tree,” but few of them are used to tremendous dramatic effect. Exceptions are the slave hymn “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and the haunting juxtaposition of “Silent Night” and “Kaddish,” sung while a Jewish soldier (Jesse Mattes) faces death with Mrs. Lincoln at his side.
It’s difficult not to admire playwright Paula Vogel’s ambition. The “How I Learned to Drive” scribe packs in an impressive amount of history while also engineering an occasionally wonderful set piece. The great emancipator Lincoln being mistaken for a slave catcher is a particularly ironic high note.
But this “Christmas” is overstuffed with story and director Tawnya Pettiford-Wates doesn’t add much clarity. The show seems static on Edwin Slipek’s functional but bland set (Slipek is a senior contributing editor at Style) and characters regularly wander into the shadows of Nathan Wunderlich’s lighting design.
Like a big family of relatives visiting over the holidays, “Christmas” has flashes of fun and warmth but ultimately overwhelms more than it entertains, and eventually overstays its welcome. S
“A Civil War Christmas” runs at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St., through Dec. 20. Find tickets and information at firehousetheatre.org.