The Civil War

nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
July 20, 2013

I've never heard a kid say that someday they want to be a historian. That’s probably because the important events of our past are traditionally taught by the numbers, leaning too heavily on dates, places, and times. Taking a more personal, and therefore more interesting, approach is The Civil War, a new musical by Theaterworks USA, running now at the beautiful Lucille Lortel Theater.

In classic Ken Burns-style, The Civil War explores the war between the states by focusing on the points of view of a few characters from varied backgrounds, some of which are more interesting than others. The story of Johnny, an Irish immigrant fighting to prove the value of his people, seems thin, but does shed valuable light on a population normally left out of the discussion surrounding this period. More interesting are the scenes between Zac, a slave escaping to join the Union army, and Will, the son of Zac’s master. Though never comfortable with his ownership of Zac, Will is eventually left with no choice but to fight for the causes of his father. Watching these two struggle to keep their mutual affection alive is moving. And along with the stories of Cyrus and Jackie, non-slave holding siblings afraid of what a Union victory might do to their way of life, offers an important shade of gray to an event we too easily frame as black versus white.

When appropriate, The Civil War is also pretty funny. In a running gag, Michael Thomas Walker, tasked with embodying countless Union generals, pokes fun at the confusion at seeing him in so many different roles. The biggest laugh, however, comes early in the war, when two male actors appear in drag as high-minded Southern ladies. As a comedy writer, I’d kill for the laughs this brief bit achieved. Adding to this mostly solid script is a spare but wonderfully useful set by Kevin Judge, and direction (Jonathan Silverstein) and choreography (Tracy Bersley) that’s efficient and, especially during the battle scenes, very exciting.

Where The Civil War falls short, however, is in the music. Though historically significant, the Civil War-era traditional songs used here did little to bring me closer to the souls of the character singing. Worst of all is that most of the singing is backed by terrible sounding instrumental tracks. I understand the great cost involved in using a live band, but surely there's a better option than the high-pitched, keyboard heavy songs used here. Since this cast can sing, I think acapella would be preferred.

Grating music aside, The Civil War is a solid hour of live theater, and a great way to teach kids of all backgrounds about one of this country’s defining moments. It's engaging, very well performed, and creatively staged. Most of all, it's a much needed reminder that inside of every war are people just like you and me.

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