New York Theatre Workshop. By Paula Vogel. Dir. Tina Landau. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.
Christmas carols are drummed into us so relentlessly at this time of year that it’s tempting to simply tune them out. In A Civil War Christmas, Paula Vogel makes a laudable effort to rescue the holiday catalog from the shopping season, moving it to the dramatic foreground of a mostly solemn pageant set in Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve in 1864. Vogel takes “Silent Night,” “O Tannenbaum,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and other chestnuts, strings them together with period folk songs and spirituals, and hangs them on the boughs of an elaborately branchy narrative. The star at the top is Abraham Lincoln (Bob Stillman); among the many other decorations are Mary Todd Lincoln (Alice Ripley, persuasively off-kilter), John Wilkes Booth (a stalwart Sean Allan Krill) and the mixed-race couturiere Elizabeth Keckley (Karen Kandel, mellifluous as always), plus numerous characters of Vogel’s own devising and a flicker of “The Little Match Girl.”
The resulting panorama, directed by Tina Landau, is meticulously inclusive of everyone: not just black and white, rich and poor, Northern and Southern, but also Jewish, gay, Quaker and Native American. (There is even a suggestion of same-sex snuggling between animals.) Conscripted into multiple parts, the cast of ten does yeoman’s work, and much of the singing is lovely. (Amber Iman sounds especially glorious.) But the transitions among story lines often seem inorganic, as does the jukebox-musical–style tailoring of situations to fit existing songs. (“The Yellow Rose of Texas” is now about a woman named Rose abducted by Texan rebs.) Weighted with so much representation, the show’s slim limbs of storytelling droop, and the tree disappears beneath the trimming.—Adam Feldman