For many of us in Southwest Michigan, it’s simply not summer until The Barn Theatre in Augusta kicks off its season. And Michigan’s oldest resident summer stock theater’s 72nd season was shot out of a canon Tuesday with “The Civil War,” a wonderfully well-chosen and poignant vehicle for the talent in this year’s company that’s surprisingly relevant.
More than a standard storybook musical, the show (with book and music by Frank Wildhorn, Jack Murphy, and Gregory Boyd) is something of a docu-drama that relies on the implicit and known tensions of history and its personal and political impacts in the moment for its story. And yet it also speaks to something even larger in the long-standing effects of a young country that is committed to different ideals of “freedom,” yet built on the irrevocable horrors and injustice of slavery. Its narrative arc is that of the war with the subtext of its ramifications that still resonate today, and its characters are archetypal rather than specific.
Ultimately, it’s a transcendent multi-layered love story — between men and country, men and freedom, men and women, and between brothers — told through uniquely American music (R&B, folk, rock, country, gospel) from the vantage point of Confederate and Union soldiers and generals, slaves and slave holders, women on the periphery of the war, and historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Abraham Lincoln.
The Barn’s production under Producer Brendan Ragotzy’s direction offers depth and sweetness with a fine cast well suited to the challenging task of telling a terrible story beautifully and without terribly distinct characters or much of a narrative arc. This speaks to the tremendous talent of these actors and musicians, some quite new to the craft and others well-seasoned professionals and guest artists.
Excellent musical direction from John Jay Espino with a terrific orchestra makes possible highlights that include powerful, lively gospel numbers as well as poignant, touching songs. Particularly moving solo performances from Albert Nelthropp in “Tell My Father,” Melissa Cotton Hunter in “Missing You (My Bill),” and Patrick Hunter in “Virginia” punctuate big, rousing ensemble numbers such as “For the Glory” and “River Jordan.”
The time, place and complex emotions come to life visually largely through projected images of historic photos. The scars on a slave’s whipped back, a fallen soldier, a makeshift field hospital, and battle scenes are interspersed between portraits of major players, dates and names of battles, as well as numbers of casualties. The haunting effect is made more dramatic by Mike McShane’s lighting, excellent period costumes from Taylor Burke and John Dobson’s uncomplicated set on which transitions between camps, battlefields, and slave auctions are seamless, and the drudgery and horrors of a terribly drawn-out war come to life in a relatively small space with skillful blocking.
Such a tremendous combination of creative talent and truthful history that doesn’t skirt the wretched realities of our country’s past also subtly brings to light why it matters to look back now. The Barn’s “Civil War” reflects that the general anxieties, hopes, fears and desires that define our current cultural divide are rooted in the even more literal divide the country very nearly didn’t survive in the 19th Century. That this extraordinary theater can show us who we are through the horrors of where we’ve been while also entertaining and making us feel good, indeed speaks to the glory of what they do.