The Playbill for Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas -- which opened Tuesday at New York Theater Workshop – contains a “production history” timeline starting with the November 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. The twelfth and final item dated “October-November 2012” notes the production’s rehearsal start, the arrival of Hurricane Sandy and NYTW’s loss of power, and the reelection of President Obama.
But the most important item on this timeline seems to be the fourth: “December 1987 – Paula Vogel promises to honor her dying brother Carl’s request to teach the children in the family about America’s history.” Fifteen years later, Vogel’s history lesson arrives in New York in utterly unexpected and spectacular fashion: akin to a jukebox musical featuring 19th century folk songs, hymns and Christmas carols, A Civil War Christmas plays with almost every theatrical convention imaginable. The end result is a fascinating and wonderful examination of our country’s history through the lens of multiple story-threads on one solitary night – the last Christmas to occur during the Civil War.
Vogel’s Christmas pageant does not attempt to teach the history of Civil War America through those iconic battles and events we learn about in elementary school. Rather, utilizing multiple interweaving and relatively simple storylines occurring in and around Washington D.C. as well as the war’s battlefields, Vogel attempts to give us a general sense of living in this time, in these places, during this turmoil. The 13-year-old southern boy who wants to go fight the Yankees is as vital to this story as President and Mrs. Lincoln.
The runaway slave and her young daughter, so spooked by the rumors of slave chasers, they separate thinking they’ll be safer but actually putting them on a path towards tragedy; or the dying Jewish soldier who just wants another visit from Walt Whitman and has never heard the song “Silent Night” before – Vogel uses stories like these and many others to piece together the experiences of a weary nation searching for peace and vengeance. The musical element enhances the drama and emotion, and even though the accompaniment rarely involves more than one or two instruments and there are certainly no big production numbers, Vogel’s use of – and, in some cases, alterations to – the chosen songs is the propellant that makes A Civil War Musical truly soar.
Vogel is clearly at play and having fun with this piece. She utilizes different narrative techniques throughout, sometimes with characters breaking the fourth wall, providing third person narration directly to the audience and creating the sensation of listening to someone read a fable; and just as quickly, the scene will shift, placing itself fully behind that proscenium separation with a more natural theatrical division between performers and audience. Characters break into song, but it never feels forced or awkward; she moves back-and-forth between light-hearted comedy and tense drama frequently and often when the audience may not expect it. And even as the overall number of stories told and frequent narrative shifts keep growing, she never complicates matters so much that the show becomes difficult to follow.