Carrboros ArtsCenter Stage came up with a winning Christmas show last year, an hour-long story of World War Is Christmas Eve truce. This years choice, A Civil War Christmas, has bigger scope, more characters and greater musical range, but the lengthy, overly ambitious script challenges the earnest cast and creative team. The piece suffices as a well-meaning Christmas pageant but could have been so much more.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogels idea has great appeal. The setting is Christmas Eve 1864 in Washington, D.C., where war-weary soldiers are encamped along the Potomac. Vogel weaves fact and fiction in telling multiple stories about Lincolns worries for the nation, his wifes efforts to find a Christmas tree, the assassination conspirators planning sessions, a young boys attempt to join the Army, a runaway slaves search for asylum with her daughter, and a black soldiers vow to avenge his wifes abduction.
Vogel cleverly ties traditional Christmas carols and spirituals to various plot points and subtly likens the search for shelter of the slave and her daughter to the Nativity story. But at 2- 1/2 hours, the script bogs down with too many story lines, made unnecessarily frustrating by constant jumping back and forth among them. A dozen cast members play multiple roles, crossing color and gender, often making the various narratives hard to follow.
Director Bing Cox bustles his cast energetically over Deb Coxs pleasing multi-level set, but he keeps things so upbeat, with a strong emphasis on humor, that it undercuts much that could be moving. The singing, under musical director Virginia OBrien, is often uneven, especially in the full company numbers.
The cast includes many seasoned players who are not at their best because they are given scant opportunity to make something of the characters and are asked to play caricatures of shopkeepers, officials and even animals.
Still, Mark Phialas quiet, wise Lincoln and Lora Deneen Tatums warm and richly sung Elizabeth Keckley (Mary Todd Lincolns seamstress) anchor the show, along with solid contributions from Alphonse Nicholson, John Paul Middlesworth, Justin Smith and Joey Osuna, among the dedicated cast. And young Alyssa Coleman deserves special mention as slave daughter, Jessa.
There is potential here for a richer experience, but the production will likely satisfy many as a way into the Christmas spirit.