Friday, July 30, 2010

Civil War Voices

The show began with a few bars of "Shenandoah," so beautifully rendered on piano and violin that I choked up a bit. But the Confederates had the next song, "Bonnie Blue Flag."

It was a Confederate diary that gave birth to the show--that of Alabama plantation owner Joseph Henry Harris, whose great-great nephew James R. Harris is a musical theater aficionado. After getting a first-hand view of the war from his uncle's diary, Harris was moved to seek out other Civil War stories and create the show that became Civil War Voices.

For me, Harris's greatest discovery was the story of Elizabeth Keckley, a slave who earned her freedom by becoming a skilled seamstress, worked for Mrs. Jefferson Davis, and then became Mrs. Abraham Lincoln's seamstress and confidante. Keckley eventually wrote a revealing memoir of her life in the White House--a book for which the world was unfortunately not yet ready in 1868. ("You can't make this stuff up," was the narrator's totally unnecessary comment.)

Other sources include the loving letters of Texas couple Theophilus (who fought for the Confedereracy) and Harriet Perry and the memoirs of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a teacher and intellectual from Maine, who became a Union general and was a hero of Gettysburg. Chamberlain's story will be familiar to many who remember Ken Burns' Civil War documentary, but an event I didn't remember provides one of the most powerfully moving episodes of the show--and drew my unexpected tears.

The crowd-pleasing score for Civil War Voices includes traditional folk songs and spirituals, Civil War songs, and popular songs of the period (one tune later became an Elvis Presley hit).

Beautifully performed and sung as part of the Midtown International Theater Festival, Civil War Voices can be seen today, Friday, at 5:45, and Sunday, August 1, 5:00, at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 W. 36 St.

For tickets ($18):

Nb: the show is likely to sell out.

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