A MUSICAL DIVIDED CAN STILL STAND
How I adore Musical Theatre Guild, which is presenting a full-out, highly professional concert staging of the 1975 musical Shenandoah. MTG offers the chance to see rarely-produced musicals with such expertise that the viewer will forget there are even scripts in hand. Accompanied by marvelous musicians, the fully-costumed, lit, and choreographed production has no high-cost sets to distract from the show at hand. As such, MTG and the sterling talent therein shines a light on the seldom-seen musicals of the (mostly) American Musical Theater canon, both the amazing and the peculiar.
The story of Shenandoah involves widower Charlie Anderson, an antiwar Virginia farmer during the Civil War, who is forced to fight against his beliefs when his youngest of six sons is taken by Union soldiers (Anderson’s only daughter is taken as well, but in marriage to a rebel soldier).
The earnest Shenandoah is one of the most oddly schizophrenic musicals ever written (my companion called it Bipolar). On one hand, Shenandoah is traditional Broadway musical comedy fare. Full of mawkish romanticism (a wedding, a Poppa’s lullaby) and corniness (knee-slapping dances), the show always maintains adherence to simple truisms (war is hell). On the other hand, it contains socially-conscious propaganda and high principles that are meant to be taken very seriously: to wit, the finger-wagging, pacifistic anti-war message. It’s completely family-friendly one scene, and then horrifyingly inappropriate for kids the next – unless you consider murder, rape and kidnapping OK if it’s sandwiched in between some songs that would be just as suitable for Annie (ironic, because the red-haired-moppet-musical displaced the Blue vs. Grey musical from the Alvin Theatre in 1977).
The critical reception was mixed to highly unfavorable for good reason. The adequate but tuneful melodies verge on the maudlin, the circumstances can be insipid (a man sings to his wife’s grave – numerous times), and the book is choppy and does little to develop character or situation. The split-personality musical had three bookwriters (James Lee Barrett, Philip Rose, and lyricist Peter Udell), and it shows. But it’s not strange that Shenandoah won a Best Book of a Musical Tony when you consider the competition: Mack and Mabel and The Wiz.
So what explains the astonishingly long run of 1,050 performances? Once again, MTG came to the rescue at the Alex Theatre last Monday (they perform again next Sunday in Thousand Oaks). MTG verified that this contrived, shamelessly sentimental musical does indeed wear its musket ball on its sleeve, but the sincere performances and straight-forward direction by Calvin Remsberg actually made the message of war’s impulsiveness surprisingly impactful, culminating in a well-deserved eye-wiping finale.
Another reason for Shenandoah’s original success was Tony-winner John Cullum as Charlie Anderson, a performance which entrenched him as a Broadway star. Founding MTG member Gordon Goodman played the abstemious patriarch with such golden-throated ferocity and disciplined dulcetness that even the sappy graveside soliloquies became a joy to behold. “The Pickers are Coming,” Charlie’s cradlesong which laments the arrival of suitors for his daughter, was a highlight.
One of the most contrived relationships in the musical is Anderson’s youngest son Robert, a quintessential Tom Sawyer-type, and his friend Gabriel, a young slave who comes off as the love-child of Topsy and Eva from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Still, guest artists Mateo Gonzales and Morgan Etnyre endearingly delivered “Why Am I Me?” without tipping over into the river of schmaltziness, quite an accomplishment for these bright, enthusiastic young performers.
The central couple in Shenandoah is the Annie-Get-You-Gun daughter, Jenny Anderson (Melissa Lyons Caldretti) and the nerve-wracked and timid soldier Sam (Zachary Ford). Through no fault of Mr. Ford, the scene in which Sam struggles to propose to Jenny verges on the dull, but the hesitancy causes her to belt out that she’ll be “Over the Hill” before he proposes, and Caldretti slammed that Appalachian waltz to the back of the house. A later scene, in which Charlie counsels Sam about women, is delightful.
Any misgivings about the musical itself vanished as a triumphant team of thespians spun the corn into gold. Most of them have Broadway credits, or they have appeared in tours or regional houses. Kim Huber was a knockout as Jenny’s sister-in-law Anne, and it was a privilege to hear her honeyed tones in “We Make a Beautiful Pair” (a duet with Caldretti), “Freedom” (an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser if ever there was one), and “Violets and Silverbells,” which was performed with Roger Befeler as James Anderson. Befeler sounded so glorious that I could have listened to his reprise of someone else’s wedding ballad all night long.
The remaining Anderson clan were played with gusto by Mark C. Reis, Dan Calloway, Ciarán McCarthy and Aaron Scheff. Although the shovin’ whoopin’ and hollerin’ of the Anderson boys in “Next to Lovin’ (I Like Fightin’)” was blatantly hokey, the actors were having a blast kicking up Sha Newman’s high-steppin’ choreography.
It was toward the end of the night, when Payson Lewis sang the haunting ballad, “The Only Home I Know,” that the popularity of Shenandoah’s 1970’s run was evidenced. Lewis’ silky, strong singing, backed up by the male chorus, was moving enough, but the creators managed to bring war’s universal truths to the fore: “For better off or worse, it’s still the only home I know” is followed by Charlie’s meditation: “What was the dyin’ for? The living can’t remember, the dead no longer care.” It would not be long after Shenandoah opened that helicopters would evacuate Saigon, officially ending the war in Viet Nam. What better (and safer) place than the theater to experience a communal mourning for the tragedies of war? For that kind of payoff, it’s forgivable that the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.
photos by Daniel G. Lam
Musical Theatre Guild at The Alex Theatre in Glendale (Los Angeles Theater)
played on June 11, 2012
for info on upcoming season, visit http://musicaltheatreguild.com
Sherr Forum, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Center
plays on June 17, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.civicartsplaza.com