3/20/2019 SHENANDOAH Serenbe Playhouse
**** ( B+ )
GOOD MOON RISING
It should go without saying that outdoor theatre is at the mercy of the elements. Performances on Serenbe's sprawling campus have been hindered by rain, lightning, wind, dive-bombing owls, squadrons of mosquitoes, air traffic, road traffic, March cold spells and (especially with the afternoon young audience plays) too much Georgia heat. But, sometimes the stars and the weather align and create an unanticipated bonus, a bonus that can turn an already memorable production downright rapturous. Thunder during the climactic battles of Macbeth. A cacophony of lakeside night-bug song to underscore Ten-Mile Lake. And now, a beautiful Full Moon Rising over the skeletal cabin of Shenandoah, supplementing Joel Coady's already near-perfect lighting plot with the most elegant moonlight silhouettes and shadows that we (who dabble in stage lighting) can't even dream of recreating. Unfortunately, this grace note will only be available this weekend (if skies remain clear), but it underscores the flip side of weather-related delays and cancellations.
So, now that the weather report has been delivered, Shenandoah, the 1974 musical based on the 1965 James Stewart movie. Although the original production made a Broadway icon out of John Cullum (who won the Tony), it is rarely produced, owing chiefly to its size -- the first number is delivered by two warring armies. But it is a perfect vehicle for Serenbe's outsized ambitions, and, it starts spectacularly -- we enter the playing area through a
Union camp, complete with horses, soldiers, Confederate prisoners, and other camp followers. Of course, the inevitable PX Tent is there (with more modern hooch and fund-raising pricing). As the show starts and the sun sets, we see a reenactment in a distant field, guns blazing, cannons roaring, smoke drifting, era-appropriate music underscoring. Then the armies enter the space, bellowing out "Raise the Flag of Dixie" in counterpoint to an equally energetic Yankee anthem. And then we're on the Anderson Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Patriarch (and widower) Charlie Anderson rules the roost with a strict but loving hand, keeping his six sons, one daughter, and one daughter-in-law busy and faithful. But the Civil War is on his doorstep, and neighbors keep urging him to send his sons, but to no avail. "This is Anderson Land, not Virginia." But, as his daughter finds happiness, the war finds them and the family is swept up in the maelstrom, resulting in loss and tragedy.
This is, without question, a large and sprawling musical and it requires a strong actor/singer at its center to make it truly gallop. Here, American Idol winner Taylor Hicks steps up, and, yes, he sings well but not strongly (I really missed the powerhouse emotion of Cullum's "Ive Heard all Before" and "Meditation"), and, to my ears, too many of his line readings come across as line recitations. But he does have a wonderful rapport with the actors playing his family, and his easy rapport with young Pilot Bunch (as "Boy" Robert) is warm and welcoming. Fortunately, by the time he gets to the final monologue at his late wife's graveside and "Meditation II," he is totally committed and totally effective.
Mr. Hicks has been given a marvelous cast as "back up." Most impressive are the women -- Sophie DeLeo as daughter Jenny and Broadway veteran Rachel Potter as daughter-in-law Anne. Their duet on the eve of Jenny's wedding, "We Make a Beautiful Pair" is a highlight of the show. If the quintet of older sons (Daniel Burns as James, Chase Davidson as Jacob, Cullen Gray as Nathan, Jeremy Gee as John, and Aaron Schilling as Henry) are a bit indistinguishable (at first), they nevertheless quickly gel into an effective family (and singing) unit. Also, notable is young Caleb Baumann as Boy Robert's friend Gabriel (and it is still a bit of a stretch that a slave boy has this much free time, but never mind that), Jeremy Skidmore as an unctuous Yankee-hating preacher, and Jordan Patrick as Jenny's tongue-tied beau, Sam. The large ensemble fill about a bajillion smaller parts, and fill them well.
As usual, the choices made by director Brian Clowdus are creative and effective, even dazzling in their originality. Many scenes are played along the front of the audience blocks, even making us part of the congregation for the church scenes (yes, we're given lyric sheets and asked to rise and join in "Pass the Cross to Me"). Adam Koch's primary set is a beautifully rendered farmhouse, solid floor and walls, skeletal upper stories and roof that silhouette nicely against the moonlit sky, leaving plenty of "front yard" space for dances and fights and actual battles. As I mentioned before, Joel Coady's expansive lighting does super-luminary work in creating place and time and mood -- including a rectangle of light way down front to act as "Martha's Grave" (and I spent far too much time trying to find the source of that light). Costumer Emmie Thomson has dressed the large cast and ensemble (and re-enactors) in very well-realized clothing that reflect both period and function, distressing them just enough to reflect heavy usage in a wartime environment. I especially appreciated how the pre-show Confederate prisoners showed ragtag patchwork outfits, probably scavenged on the trail. The show looks tremendous.
Chris Brent Davis brings his "A" game to the Music Direction, allowing some of the cast to accompany some numbers on guitar, banjo, harmonica, and washboard, and ensuring harmonies are kept and melodies showcased. On the other hand, he is a bit "kneecapped" by the sound design, which makes the group numbers a bit too "tinny" and the sound sources a bit "iffy" -- it is a very large playing space, and I suspect speaker count was limited and speaker quality a sketchy.
Still, this remains a powerful piece and a good example of a seventies-era musical aging gracefully. Nothing here seems dated in either style or content. The songs stick in your head, the characters are vivid and larger than life, and the portrait of a dark era of our national history comes to life in both its glory and ignominy. It remains decidedly neutral on Blue and Gray, and decidedly passionate against war, itself.
Perhaps, its inclusion in this year's season will initiate talks about the true cost of extremism and passionate defense of "sides" rather than people.
And, to my perennially pacifist way of thinking, that is truly a Good Moon Rising.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #SerenbePlayhouse #Shenandoah)
Taylor Hicks and the Cast of SHENANDOAH at Serenbe Playhouse
All Photos by BreeAnne Clowdus