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History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors. But even so, as the decades and centuries pass, debates rage on – so much so, that political parties, educators and the politically correct reshape, expand, distort or otherwise eradicate the past to fit their agendas. We’ve seen that happen recently with a college professor’s attempt to spare hurt feelings by changing the dreaded and much-feared “n-word” to “slave” in Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huck Finn” – thus negating history and the specific impact Twain wanted to evoke when he chose to use that word 200-plus times in his novel. And every so often school textbook authors come under fire when they attempt to placate one special interest group’s demands over those of another – the result of which is often a watered-down and very boring narrative that does little more than make people feel good about themselves at the expense of what a history lesson SHOULD do: put the actions of a people and their country into its proper context. Why is this important? Because as Sir Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Personally, as a lifelong history buff, I like the “warts and all” approach to understanding the past. After all, the winners weren’t all saints, and the losers weren’t all devils; it’s people rising above their all-too-human flaws that makes history so fascinating. So I approached Meadow Brook Theatre’s current production of “Reunion: A Musical Epic in Miniature” with great interest. Would it be a feel-good romp through the Civil War, I wondered? Or would creators Jack Kyrieleison, Ron Holgate and Michael O’Flaherty tackle the tough subjects that still haunt us today?
Well, they certainly did – and their thorough research not only provides one heck of an entertaining night at the theater, it’s also a fine snapshot of the events and personalities that shaped the Civil War.
The story begins 25 years after Lincoln’s assassination. Harry Hawk (who, historically, was on the Ford’s Theatre stage at the moment of the shooting) and his rag-tag band of traveling actors are performing what he calls a “musical epic in miniature – the story of the late War to Save the Union, woven from the very words of those engaged in that heroic struggle!” And for the next two hours, the audience watches as narratives from more than 75 eyewitnesses to the war and 26 songs from the era combine to weave the epic tale referred to as an “American Iliad.”
Although the production views the war from the perspective of the Union and the White House, its creators don’t shy away from the controversies and the failures experienced by Lincoln and his generals. In particular, the rift that forms between the president and the much-loved but slow-to-act Gen. George B. McClellan is quite clearly delineated. I also suspect most people have never heard about the Draft Riots in New York City. Nor that Lincoln’s former general was predicted to win against him in his bid for reelection. And what exactly WAS the cause of the Civil War? (That’s STILL the subject of much discussion 150 years after the fact!)
Plus, the language accurately reflects the times.
Most impressive, though, is how well the words and songs convey the passions and conflicting emotions ignited by the War. This is most obvious in the first act song “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight,” in which a sweet melody serves to tell the story of a soldier who is unexpectedly picked off by a sniper. And in the second act, the hauntingly familiar “Beautiful Dreamer” underscores another soldier’s horrifying thoughts about the upcoming amputation of his battle-torn leg.
So as you can tell, “Reunion” is certainly not a puff piece for those wishing their history to be sweet and innocent. Rather, it’s an astonishingly accurate overview of the Civil War as told through word and song by the people who were there.
With so many people to hear from and so few thespians – eight in total – each actor plays multiple characters. Tobin Hissong, for example, plays Hawk and excels as Gen. McClellan, while Eric Gutman (as actor Augustin Lovecraft) serves as narrator and frames the scenes as Lincoln’s personal assistant. (Lincoln is never seen, although his spirit can be felt throughout the production.) And Rob Arbaugh brings to life every Union soldier the story requires. (His is a heartfelt performance from start to finish.)
They are aided by fellow singers/performers whose voices combine to make beautiful music together. Satori Shakoor and David Aron Damane are simply superb both individually and especially when joined together in “Wake Nicodemus,” written by abolitionist Henry Clay Work. And Leslie Ann Handelman shines in the aforementioned “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”
Director Travis W. Walter is aided and abetted by music director Stacy White and choreographer Jennifer George-Consiglio. Costumes by Liz Moore are as authentic-looking as one can possibly get, while Brian Kessler’s impressive set – the action takes place in a Civil War Museum – holds plenty of surprises thanks to several large video screens and panels that spin around or open up.
And, as always, the production is served well by Reid G. Johnson’s lighting design.
But be forewarned: “Reunion” isn’t a standard play or musical. (“Where’s the plot? The action?” one theatergoer was overheard to say.) Instead, it’s a series of thematically related vignettes tied together to tell a grand epic. While I thoroughly enjoyed the slickly produced show, my guest for the evening nodded off a few times – as did the man sitting behind me and another in the row in front of me. And during intermission, a handful of college students there on assignment stood in front of the exit and debated whether or not to leave. (I didn’t hang around to observe their decision.) Yet it earned a standing ovation from many who attended on opening night. So like history itself, “Reunion” is subject to much debate. But here the winner is anyone who wants to gain insight into one of American’s most troubling periods – while being entertained at the same time!
‘Reunion: A Musical Epic in Miniature’
Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through March 6. $24-$39. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com