Review: Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War at Ford’s Theatre

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We cannot escape history; the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. 150 years ago on April 14, 1865 one of the greatest forefathers of our country was assassinated inside of Ford’s Theatre while attending a production of Our American Cousin. Commemorating this national event that helped shaped the nation as we know it today, Ford’s Theatre has commissioned a brand new musical Written by Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd, and Jack Murphy to capture the essence of the greatness of Abraham Lincoln and the world in which he lived during a time of Civil War. Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War is a striking musical that stirs to life evocative reckonings within the American people; a beacon of musical liberty that provokes the heart, invigorates the soul, and awakens the mind to the true notion of Freedom.

Despite the specificity and slight esotericism of the show, curtailed to Ford’s Theatre and the 150th Commemorative event, Frank Wildhorn’s music is moving, simply put. Inspirational chords underscore powerful lyrics in every number that highlight our nation’s toughest internal struggle. The hinted storyline that weaves its way in and out of the numbers follows soldiers, and those they leave behind, as the Civil War gets underway. Addressing slavery, freedom, and the greatest man of his time, Wildhorn, Boyd, and Murphy create a sensational musical that delivers American pride in our nation’s past. Directed by Jeff Calhoun, with Musical Direction by Michael T. Sebastian, Freedom’s Song will reanimate a swelling sense of honor and nobility within the heart.

Scenic Designer Tobin Ost crafts a visually stunning set that encompasses the duality of the show’s two eras as well as the multitude of locations the musical numbers strive to cover. The tilted box of the president’s office serves two-fold to represent the conflicted slide of feelings experienced during Lincoln’s presidency and it showcases the struggle of constantly moving uphill toward progress. With a gliding platform that thrusts performers forward into the fray, the set is breathtaking despite its simplicity.

The company of Freedom's Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War at Ford's Theatre
The company of Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War at Ford’s Theatre Scott Suchman

It’s Lighting Designer Michael Gilliam and Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne whose masterful work really accentuates the clever setting that Ost has created. The blinking reds and bursts of bright white during battle scenes fabricate an authentic war-torn feeling and Gilliam positions them in precisely the right moment with flawless execution. Rhyne’s work as a projectionist brings the presence of Lincoln full circle into the space with constant projections of his writing— ever spoken word of text in the performance is derived from words either spoken or written by Lincoln— and images of the man himself. The striking moment during “Candle in the Window” is Rhyne’s masterpiece; a ghostly silhouette with shading of the iconic beard and top hat of the president can be seen in the window-like reflection of the wall as this song carries onward to its haunting conclusion. Gilliam’s moment of truth comes in the simple notion that every time the actors speak Lincoln’s words, a soft glowing spotlight finds his top hat and coat and focuses there as if they were calling forth the spirit of the great man who once spoke them.

Dialect and Vocal Director Leigh Wilson Smiley authenticates the sound of Dixie and the subtle hint of the north in this production. Impressively composing vocal integrity across the board so that these remnants of accents linger well into the performers’ singing voices, Smiley imbues the production with ripe southern drawls and rich articulate northern annunciations. Working in tandem with Musical Director Michael T. Sebastian, the team forges tremendous vocal soundscapes throughout the performance. Sebastian focuses on highlighting harmonies during the more striking duets like “Candle in the Window” and “Missing You (My Bill).” The battle cries featured in “By the Sword/Sons of Dixie” are firm, the Union Boys sounding confident and boastful in their verses of this number while the Confederates sound gritty, baring vocally the weight of being the underdog.

The cast of Freedom's Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War at Ford's Theatre
The cast of Freedom’s Song: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War at Ford’s Theatre Scott Suchman

Director Jeff Calhoun sets an impeccable pace and keeps the musical rolling, but some of the more artistic choices resonate unsoundly. While the concept and symbolism behind having the actors hang their Civil War costumes on hangers that ascend up over the stage near the end of the production does create a striking image and is meant to represent the ghosts of the past always hovering nearby, the resulting visual is more grandiose for some of the costumes and a bit morbid and slightly offensive for others. Calhoun’s casting is for the most part solid, though the Union Soldiers have a far studier and overall stronger vocal resonance than those in the Confederate Army. Perhaps a clever play on foreshadowing the well-known outcome of the war, but it becomes distracting during numbers like “The Day the Sun Stood Still” and the Confederate Private (Stephen Gregory Smith)’s solo verses are drowned by the powerful ensemble and musical crescendos echoing around him.

The Confederate Sergeant (Chris Sizemore) is given a chance to add a little levity to the perilous situation for the Dixie Boys late in the performance with his solo number “Old Gray Coat.” While Sizemore is not a strong singer, what he lacks in vocal clarity he makes up for in enthusiasm and character. Eagerly bouncing along through the melody and hitting the moments of humor that make the song politely tickle the funny bone, Sizemore dons the prideful attitude appropriate to carry this number to success. Imbued with a blaze of southern glory, the number is well received before the show concludes on a more somber, albeit uplifting, note.

Gregory Maheu as Union Private
Gregory Maheu as Union Private Scott Suchman

The Union Private (Gregory Maheu) is a fierce spirit, glory bound and honor ruled to do right by his love, his country, and his heart. Maheau’s voice is stellar; the second most talented male voice featured in the performance. His solo “Northbound Train” is delivered in a firm but gentle fashion with absolute pitch perfection. His sweet farmer’s disposition carries through into his solid sustains and his mellifluous voice carries the lyrics to divinity. Maheu is given a second solo late in the performance, “Sarah” and this number truly tugs at the heartstrings. With an earnest Acapella start, the gorgeous imagery Maheu paints as he sings this bittersweet melody is vibrant and alive.

Opening the story in modern times is The Storyteller (Nova Y. Payton.) While Payton’s voice is glorious, and both “Prologue” and “Someday” are great opportunities for her to showcase her sturdy belt and roaming range, Payton lacks differentiation between her modern narrative character and her Civil War era characters, which spans from slave to housekeeper to abolitionist depending upon the number. There is something unsettling about hearing modern poppy sounding vocals in an otherwise serene duet like “Candle in the Window” a song shared with Ashley D. Buster.

(L to R) Kevin McAllister, Jobary Parker-Namdar, Nova Y. Payton, Rayshun LaMarr Purefoy, and Ashley D. Buster
(L to R) Kevin McAllister, Jobary Parker-Namdar, Nova Y. Payton, Rayshun LaMarr Purefoy, and Ashley D. Buster Scott Suchman

Buster, who plays varying roles throughout the performance, delivers a harrowing song filled with heartache, fear, and woe during “If Prayin’ Were Horses.” Joining Payton, Kevin McAllister, Jobari Parker-Namdar and Rayshun LaMarr Purefoy for “The Peculiar Institution” and “Freedom’s Child”, her voice is a welcome addition to the chorus of five that rings through these powerful and emotionally gripping numbers.

Tracy Lynn Olivera as a Confederate Wife and War Nurse
Tracy Lynn Olivera as a Confederate Wife and War Nurse Scott Suchman

The song “Missing You (My Bill)” is designed to display the tearful fact that regardless of which side their man marches off to war far, losing love is still a deep aching pain that can only be truly expressed in song. The Union Private’s Wife (Carolyn Agan) and the Confederate Private’s Wife (Tracy Lynn Olivera) bring their voices together for this duet with warmth and longing. Agan, who later delivers one of the most striking numbers in the show with her rendition of “The Honor of Your Name”, is vocally mesmerizing. Delivering that solo with confusion and a sharp sense of abandonment she manages to suffuse love, pride and commitment into the words, holding her head up high to complete the number. Olivera, whose voice is more operatic than emotional, delivers an equally impressive song in her solo “I Never Knew His Name,” with a clinical detachment filling her emotional void so that she is not overcome by the reality of the situation.

(L to R) Ryan Burke, Samuel Edgerly, Christopher D. Harris, Gregory Mahue, and Jason Wooten
(L to R) Ryan Burke, Samuel Edgerly, Christopher D. Harris, Gregory Mahue, and Jason Wooten Scott Suchman

Facing off in every possible duet, the Confederate Captain (Darren Ritchie) and the Union Captain (Jason Wooten) bring the resounding radiance of the north and the surefire spirit of the south to the musical with zest and gusto. Wooten is the stronger of the pair of singing Captains, but both hold their own in “Brother, My Brother” as well as “By the Sword/Sons of Dixie.” Ritchie envelops “The Last Waltz for Dixie” in a bittersweet moment of pride and dignity, dusting the number with a hopeful defeat as the show nears its close. Wooten sports a boasting voice during his verses of “Judgment Day” and the initial full-company songs of the show. His resilience reverberates through “The Glory” reflecting victory until the number’s abrupt pause at the canon-shot. Both performers lead their respective army soldiers through the intense number, “The Day the Sun Stood Still” and “How Many Devils” with passion and determination that is well worthy of praise.

Kevin McAllister as a Fugitive who has joined the Union Army
Kevin McAllister as a Fugitive who has joined the Union Army Scott Suchman

The strongest and most sensational voice in the production by far is that of Kevin McAllister, playing the Fugitive. His heart-melting full bass range during “If Prayin’ Were Horses” is mind blowing; a soulful sound steeped in the difficult decisions of his character’s plight. This rich unimaginably beauteous sound is tempered with Buster’s lighter harmonies in this number. Alive and full of luminescence, McAllister’s versatile voice brightens the start of “Freedom’s Child” and carries it through with bursts of pride to the end. The moment of evocative spine-tingling chills comes from his rendition of “Father, How Long?” A phenomenal performance given here by McAllister fills the heart-breaking solo with the very essence of his being. An awe-inspiring vocal gem among a talented cast, McAllister is an exceptional addition to the show as makes the performance as a whole stand out as stellar.

A moment in history that you will not wish to miss; to be a part of the commemorative marking of 150 years and the way the nation is still feeling the effects of the struggle and loss of our greatest president; Ford’s Theatre is the place to be this spring.    

Running Time: 90 minutes no intermission

Freedom’s Song plays through May 20, 2015 at Ford’s Theatre— 511 10th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 347-4833 or purchase them online.

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