Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May 2007
If you take Reunion at face value as staged musical chronicle of the years Abraham Lincoln was president, it works very well. The production currently on the boards at NYSTI looks and sounds great. I found it moving and entertaining, and so did my eleven-year-old nephew, who claimed no prior knowledge of that period of history. In fact he was literally on the edge of his seat, enthralled by the entire production, even though the plot is not linear, the songs sound elderly to our modern ears, and there is no one central character to follow.
Playwright Jack Kyrieleison and director Ron Holgate have worked together on this project for about a decade now. It had its off-Broadway premiere in 1999, the same year that The Civil War: The Musical by Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel), Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy opened on Broadway at the St. James. Both shows use writings of the period as the basis for their books, but where the Wildhorn version has all original music, Kyrieleison has constructed a score composed entirely of songs written during or before the Civil War.
I haven’t seen the Wildhorn musical, and I have to say that the idea of trying to cram the entire all-singing, all dancing Civil War on to the stage did not appeal to me, but Kyrieleison and Holgate have been managed paint with a broad brush on a fairly narrow canvas. Taking the unseen President Lincoln as their central figure, they follow events through the pro-northern, anti-slavery eyes of the White House for the duration of Lincoln’s presidency, from his nomination to his assassination.
Reunion has been presented with casts of varying sizes – most frequently with a cast of six – but NYSTI is staging a new expanded version with a cast of 26. If you knew that the show was usually presented with a much smaller cast, the minor alterations to allow for a larger cast were obvious, but if you didn’t I am not sure they would be. I enjoyed the full-bodied sound of the NYSTI cast, and the talents of the eight or so soloists who shared the six original roles, but I think I would have enjoyed watching a small crew tackle the material as well. Reunion is subtitled An Epic in Miniature and I think it would have been fun to see the entire Civil War presented by a mere six actors.
The central six figures act as narrators at various times, each speaking for a certain group and point of view. While Lincoln is not on stage, his point of view and frequently the actual words he spoke or wrote are given to a character called The Secretary (Gary Lynch). The Secretary refers to Lincoln as the Tycoon, a newly coined word adopted by Lincoln’s inner circle from the Japanese “taikun” meaning “Supreme Commander.” He refers to Mary Todd Lincoln, who also never appears on stage, by a far less flattering term.
Another view of the war is offered by a Union Soldier, played with great heart by David Girard. Girard is an actor of great skill and energy. Whenever he is on the stage I want to see what he is going to do and how he is going to do it. My eye sought him out even in the crowd scenes.
Laiona Michelle, who plays two different African-American women – a dressmaker to Mrs. Lincoln and a freed slave named Cassie Drumwright – shows great range. Her characterizations in the two roles were so distinctive that it took me a while to figure out that there were not two talented African-American women in the cast. Towards the end of the first act, when Cassie and her husband Hannibal (Ivan Thomas) learn of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, she begins the song “Wasn’t That A Wide River” with a tone that organically rises from her chest – a moan of relief, a shout of victory, a scream of surprise – that morphs into a song of praise and wonder.
Thomas is a powerful singer and stage presence in the Paul Robson mold. The story Kyrieleison has given to Hannibal is an interesting one. Until the Emancipation Proclamation, the War was publicly billed as being about the preservation of the Union, not about the “negro question” and consequently African-Americans were not allowed to serve in the military. Thomas plays Hannibal’s growing frustration at being unable to serve his country with great power and conviction.
Amy De Gange plays the dual roles of the Abolitionist and the Nurse, although I would have been happy to accept the two characters as one. To a large extent the abolitionist movement was a women’s movement, and many women who fought for rights for African-Americans believed that they would be given equal political and economic powers as well. As we all know, it took another fifty years for American women to be granted the right to vote, and nearly a century for African-Americans to truly own the power given to them by the 15th amendment in 1870. Kyrieleison makes both of De Gange’s roles strong and forthright women, and she endows them with a feistiness that does not quail before the genuine horrors of war and slavery.
The large cast is uniformly strong, and it would be impossible to find enough good words to shower on all of them, but I did enjoy NYSTI intern Lydia Nightingale’s lovely soprano as the Hometown Girl on Weeping Sad and Lonely. And I wish we had gotten to see more of Eric Rose as John Wilkes Booth. I was sorry that Kyrieleison took the easy way out, portraying Booth as the classic melodrama villain (a role he was indeed playing in Our American Cousin) instead of letting us hear a little bit more of his modus operandi. In fact, the Southern sentiment is conspicuously absent from the entire play.
When I told a classical musician friend of mine that I was going to see a show scored with the music of the Civil War, he grimaced and remarked that that was not a period known for its outstanding musical accomplishments. Thankfully Reunion manages to be better than its source material. Yes, the tunes sound old-fashioned and the lyrics maudlin and often politically incorrect, but it is fun to realize how many songs have stayed in the vernacular these 150 years – Beautiful Dreamer, Home, Sweet Home, Wasn’t That A Wide River, John Brown’s Body, Tenting on the Old Camp Ground, and Marching Through Georgia were all familiar to me, and I suspect to many other adults in the audience.
The music is certainly made more enjoyable and acceptable to modern ears by the lively arrangements by Michael O’Flaherty, performed with vigor by the six-piece band under the musical direction of Albin Konopka.
Garett E. Wilson has designed a versatile set, which, with the help of John McLain’s fine lighting design, allows various portions of the stage to represent everything from the White House to a battlefield. Karen Kammer’s costumes are excellent replicas of the styles of both the 1860s and the 1890s. I really loved her Fire Zouaves costumes which reminded me so strongly of both the uniforms worn by those firefighters/soldiers and the “racy” costumes assumed by “girls in tights” in the Gay ‘90’s.
Kyrieleison’s research into the Civil War period is impressive, and his affection for the period and its people is obvious. NYSTI is an educational theatre and one would have to be a real Civil War scholar not to come away with new ideas learned and old school-room facts refreshed and brought to life. My impressions of General George B. McClellan (1826-1885) had come primarily from a little Abraham Lincoln Joke Book I had as a child, where he was the butt of many jokes and came off as rather a buffoon. Kyrieleison has made McClellan (played by David Bunce) one of the central figures in Reunion and I was surprised to learn that he was very popular with his troops and had run against Lincoln as the Democratic candidate in the 1864 presidential race.
What didn’t work for me was a complex framing device. Reunion is staged as a play within a play. What we are watching is billed as a performance of Reunion: An American Iliad (notice the different subtitle. Iliad in this case means “a series of miseries or disastrous events”) presented on April 14, 1890 – the 25th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination – by a theatrical troupe headed by Harry Hawk and staged in the idiom of that day.
For personal reasons I have been reading several biographies and autobiographies of theatrical folk of the late 19th and early 20th century. But while I could have told you that the last words Lincoln heard were “you sockdologizing old man-trap” and that they occurred during a production of Tom Taylor’s 1858 farce Our American Cousin presented by Laura Keene’s company in Ford’s Theatre, I couldn’t have told you that Harry Hawk was the actor playing the title role of Asa Trenchard or that he was alone on stage in Act III, scene ii when Booth shot Lincoln. And if I couldn’t have told you that, I wonder who could?
There were definitely moments in Reunion when I wondered if I knew enough to really be enjoying and understanding what I was seeing. As the reaction of my completely ignorant nephew proves, I was worrying in vain. Anyone can enjoy “Reunion, and I think the removal of the framing device would make the show feel more accessible right from the start.
The New York State Theatre Institute presentation of Reunion runs through May 19 at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)
For more information on this production I recommend picking up or clicking through to the NYSTI Study Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007