Scott Bakula and Megan Lewis in Shenandoah
(Photo © T. Charles Erikson)
Scott Bakula and Megan Lewis
in Shenandoah
(Photo © T. Charles Erikson)
Shenandoah, the 1975 Broadway hit now being revived at Ford's Theatre, can be seen as a timely anti-war piece -- especially since it's playing just a few blocks from a war-obsessed White House. But that sentiment, pointedly encouraged by director Jeff Calhoun, misses the main point. Yes, this musical tale of family joy and significant tragedy in the midst of the Civil War does show in heart-rending fashion the horrors of war; but the misery visited upon the family of Charlie Anderson, the stubborn patriarch of a large Virginia brood (played by stage and television star Scott Bakula), is substantially the result of his own actions. Indeed, supporters of the current administration's adventures overseas can probably find just as much in this musical to justify their view that inaction in the face of looming danger is indefensible.

Of course, it's not the show's politics that will captivate audiences. This production has considerable charms. The orchestrations of the peppy songs by Gary Geld and Peter Udell have been updated by music director Steven Landau for a more contemporary sound. Calhoun, a skilled Broadway veteran, has rearranged a few scenes and dropped a few songs, and he knows how to pull an ensemble together tightly around his star performer. But he can't mask the musical's flaws: the score's upbeat celebration of country life in the verdant Shenandoah Valley clashes with serious discussions of one's responsibility to family and country and tense scenes of incipient violence. The book -- by Geld and Philip Rose, based on James Lee Barrett's screenplay for the 1965 movie of the same title -- is rather listless in the first act but ultimately generates the kind of emotional heat that sends audience members out into the night with tears in their eyes.

Charlie is a prosperous Virgnia farmer, a widower who lives with six sons and a daughter. It's late in the Civil War, which Anderson has thus far managed to keep at bay -- but the outside world is intruding. Daughter Jenny (Megan Lewis) is in love with rebel soldier Sam (Noah Racey); the oldest Anderson son, James (Andrew Samonsky), thinks Virginia (not slavery!) is worth fighting for; and all of the sons are in danger of being sucked into the whirlwind of war as encroaching cannon fire echoes across Anderson's 500 acres. For a while, though, things remain idyllic. There's dancin' and wrasslin' and goin' to Sunday meetin' until war's fury descends upon the clan and Anderson's response -- or lack of response -- leads to a series of disasters.

Charlie is no hero; he himself owns no slaves, but this seems to be more a matter of pride than morals, and he does not condemn others for doing so. Nor is he a true man of peace; he refuses to take sides simply because he thinks he doesn't have to, and he won't let his sons take a stand, either. Here is a man so driven by his ego that he can't conceive of fighting for anything that doesn't directly affect his life; in fact, he's so self-absorbed that he rejoices in the birth of his first grandchild primarily because the blessed event makes him feel "immortal." Yet Bakula, who possesses a rough-hewn charm and a strong, clear baritone voice, succeeds in making the character likable, most notably in several quiet scenes wherein Anderson expresses his fears and hopes at his wife's grave. The most heartwarming moment in the show comes when Bakula sings "Papa's Gonna Make It Alright," a gentle interlude after a scene of ferocious violence.

Part of Shenandoah's problem is that much of the first act feels derivative. Some of the songs would be right at home in Li'l Abner, and the passel of rustic young men on stage almost seems borrowed from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers -- particularly in the high-energy number "Next to Lovin' (I Like Fightin')." Lewis appears to be channeling Adelaide from Guys and Dolls when she laments her unmarried status in "Over the Hill." On the plus side, a highlight of the show is "Why Am I Me?", in which Anderson's youngest son (Kevin Clay) bonds with the young slave Gabriel (Mike Mainwaring).

Set and costume designer Tobin Ost and lighting designer Michael Gilliam have created a stunning visual backdrop for this telling of a Civil War tale in the very theater where Abraham Lincoln became one of the tragic conflict's last victims. The stage is bathed in vibrant colors that evoke daylight breaking or dusk falling in the Valley. A massive picture frame dominates the stage, at various times framing live tableaux and period photographs. (At one point, it even serves as a train tunnel.)

When the story and the music work together in the relatively short second act, Shenandoah is powerful -- so much so that the final scene is a welcome balm rather than seeming emotionally manipulative.