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Paula Vogel’s ‘A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration’ comes to the Huntington


Image courtesy the Huntington Theatre Company.

Image courtesy the Huntington Theatre Company.

The gladness of your heart is the greatest gift of all. The Huntington Theatre Company continues its 28th season – a season of American Stories – with A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration, a new uplifting holiday event by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive, The Mineola Twins, The Baltimore Waltz). Steppenwolf Associate Artist Jessica Thebus (Intimate Apparel, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Sonia Flew) directs. Andrew Resnick (A Civil War Christmas at Long Wharf Theatre) provides musical direction of beloved holiday music supervised, arranged, and orchestrated by Daryl Waters (Tony and Grammy Award nominee for Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk). The Huntington’s production will be enhanced by local choirs caroling from the stage before each performance.

“With A Civil War Christmas, I was struck once again by the strength of Paula’s voice,” says Huntington Artistic Director Peter DuBois. “Her writing is consistently innovative and intellectually rich. With this play, she’s given a great gift to us all: a new American Christmas celebration.”

A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration takes place on Christmas Eve 1864. In the White House, President and Mrs. Lincoln plot their gift giving. On the Potomac, a young rebel soldier challenges a Union blacksmith’s mercy. In the streets, a fugitive from slavery searches for her daughter on the night she finds freedom. Playwright Vogel weaves these stories and more into an American tapestry, showing us that the gladness of your heart is the greatest gift of all.

“This story of a nation in transformation, emerging from slavery is half imagined and half true and told partly in honor of all of the stories that are erased from history by the hand of the historians, all of the stories hidden from us by prejudice,” explains Vogel.

“The image of the Christmas tree is central to Paula’s play,” remarks Thebus. “The tree that our characters chase around the freezing streets is a small, domestic celebration of the possibility of grace interrupting even the most terrible moment. In each home, despite the devastation of the Civil War, a humble, homemade pageant is made manifest. The tree urges us to be brave enough to celebrate, for how can we not?”

Thebus continues, “The story of A Civil War Christmas, told directly to the audience by a community of actors, is told through fantastic music and song — originally written by forgotten hands and sung by so many voices before us. Paula’s story is about transformation, and throughout the play, the cast transforms themselves into men, women, horses, mules, merchants, soldiers, figures in a dream and more. Paula’s play shows with virtuosity how many twists and turns are possible with very little. You never know what magic will happen when endless transformation is possible.”

The ensemble cast, including a youth chorus of six, will bring Waters’ musical arrangements to life at each performance. In addition, the production will be enhanced by local choirs caroling before each performance. “We aim to wrap our arms around Greater Boston with this special production that celebrates the American spirit and our many diverse communities,” says Huntington Managing Director Michael Maso. “In addition to welcoming a number of Boston’s finest actors into the Huntington family, we look forward to having 34 choral groups from throughout our region take to our stage throughout the run.” Participating choirs range from the Revels Touring Ensemble to the Spirit Gospel Singers to the Boston Children’s Chorus.

Playwright Paula Vogel received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, OBIE, and New York Drama Critics Awards for Best Play for How I Learned to Drive. Her other plays include The Long Christmas Ride Home, The Mineola Twins, The Baltimore Waltz (OBIE Award), Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, Desdemona, And Baby Makes Seven, and The Oldest Profession. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including the Rhode Island Pell Award in the Arts, the PEN/Laura Fells Foundation Award, and an AT&T New Plays Award. She currently serves as the Eugene O’Neill Professor and Chair of the Playwriting Department at the Yale School of Drama.

Vogel says, “I am thrilled to join the Huntington Theatre Company and Peter DuBois this season with my newest work. I am particularly proud and happy to work with Peter, an artist I have long admired. It is wonderful to produce this work in Boston, a place that was so actively involved in the Union effort during the Civil War, and wonderful, too, to produce the work in a theatre that has enriched the city and American theatre for decades. I am excited about working on the piece where friends and younger members of my family reside, for this work was written especially for the children in my family.”

Director Jessica Thebus is an associate artist with Steppenwolf Theatre Company where she directed Intimate Apparel, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, When the Messenger is Hot (also 59E59 Theatres, NYC), and Sonia Flew. Other directing credits include The Clean House (Goodman Theatre), Jekyll and Hyde, Inherit the Wind, and Red Herring (Northlight Theatre), and Turn of the Screw (Writers’ Theatre.) Ms. Thebus holds a doctorate in performance studies from Northwestern University where she is currently on faculty in the directing program and has designed courses and taught at The University of Chicago, DePaul University, Columbia College, and Roosevelt University.

Music supervisor, arranger, and orchestrator Daryl Waters received Tony and Grammy Award nominations for his original music in Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk. For Broadway, he also composed the music for Regina Taylor’s Drowning Crow, orchestrated the new musical Memphis, and wrote dance arrangements for The Color Purple and Jelly’s Last Jam. He worked with many entertainment legends including Cab Calloway, Nell Carter, Sammy Davis Jr., Luther Henderson, and Eartha Kitt, for whom he served as music director for 22 years.

The Huntington’s season of American stories is the first in the company’s 27-year history comprised entirely of shows by American writers. The plays of the season relate to one another through stories of opportunities lost and found, of intergenerational struggles and successes, and of the most intimate and meaningful relationships. Drawn from some of the best writing the country has to offer, the Huntington will engage its audience in a season-long conversation about issues of race, class, values, and a shared American experience. “This season at the Huntington, we are taking on a range of compelling American writing,” says Mr. DuBois. “Each production offers us a singular point of view about the American experience, and I’m very excited by the diverse perspectives these artists bring.”

THE CAST
The cast is led by acclaimed local actors Ken Cheeseman (President Abraham Lincoln), Karen MacDonald (Mary Todd Lincoln), and Jacqui Parker (Elizabeth Keckley). Cheeseman’s Off Broadway credits include A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure (The Public Theater/NYSF), King Lear (La MaMa E.T.C.), Amphitryon and Scapin (Classic Stage Company), and numerous appearances with Actors’ Shakespeare Project. Elliot Norton Award winner MacDonald is a founding member of the American Repertory Theater where she appeared in over 70 productions, most recently The Seagull, Endgame, and Trojan Barbie. Elliot Norton Award winner Parker previously appeared in Breath, Boom at the Huntington, where she is also a Playwriting Fellow, and appeared in Macbeth with Actors’ Shakespeare Project and as the title role in Caroline, or Change with SpeakEasy Stage Company (IRNE Award for Best Actress).

Cheeseman, MacDonald, and Parker and each of the other members of the ensemble cast will play multiple roles in this production. The cast also includes:

Uzo Aduba (Coram Boy on Broadway; The Seven Off Broadway) as Hannah and others;
Chris Bannow (Speech and Debate at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre; The Tempest on the National Players tour) as Chester Manton Saunders and others;
Jason Bowen (The Duchess of Malfi, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest and more for Actors’ Shakespeare Project; A House with No Walls at New Repertory Theatre) as Jim Wormley and others
Gilbert Glenn Brown (Forgive Me at Midtown International Theatre Festival; Topdog/Underdog at Seattle Repertory Theatre/Circle Theatre Group) as Bronson Decatur and others;
Ed Hoopman (Mr. Roberts at New Repertory Theatre; The Importance of Being Earnest at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston) as John Wilkes Booth and others;
Savannah Koplow (a member of the Boston Children’s chorus and a former member of NEC’s The Singing Circle) as Jessa (alternating);
DeLance Minefee (Dust Off Broadway; Donnie Darko at the American Repertory Theater) as Ely Parker and others;
Stephen Russell (The Last Hurrah at the Huntington; The Life of Galileo at Underground Railway Theatre; A Pinter Duet at New Repertory Theatre) as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and others;
Molly Schreiber (Two Men of Florence at the Huntington; A Christmas Carol at Trinity Repertory Company) as Raz and others; and
Hyacinth Tauriac (Fences at the Huntington) as Jessa (alternating).

The cast also includes local university students Aaron Parker Fouhey, Alicia Hunt, Sarajane Mullins, Blake Pfeil, and Rebbekah Vega Romero. The following children will appear at alternating performances: Jonah Yannis, Kalaria Okali, Oliver Jay, Lily Steven, Grace Brakeman, Cameron Kelly, Gabriele Lyman-von Steig, Lauren Sabbag, Abby Spare, and Amari Veale.

Production Artists
The creative team for A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration includes music director/pianist Andrew Resnick (A Civil War Christmas at Long Wharf Theatre; One Night Stand: An Improvised Musical at New York Musical Theatre Festival, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and Hudson Theatre; Twilight in Manchego at NYMTF); scenic designer Dan Ostling (Tony Award nomination for Metamorphoses and Lookingglass Alice for Broadway; La Sonnambula at The Metropolitan Opera); costume designer Miranda Hoffman (Well and Mauritius for the Huntington; Well on Broadway; Stunning at Lincoln Center Theater); lighting designer T.J. Gerckens (Journey to the West for the Huntington; Metamorphoses on and Off Broadway; La Sonnambula at The Metropolitan Opera); and sound designer Ben Emerson (A Long and Winding Road, Fences, and The Miracle at Naples for the Huntington). Production Stage Manager is Gail P. Luna. Stage Manager is Leslie Sears.

Compiled from the press release courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company (website | profile | tag archive).

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