Rebel Rouser

You've got to hand it to Variety. Very often, while critics walk on eggshells around cultural generalities, the show-business trade publication cuts through it with an admirable bluntness. Here's what the paper had to say about producer Ken Gentry's new traveling version of the Frank Wildhorn musical The Civil War: "He's abandoned the tacky battles, voiceovers and set pieces, nixed the huge ensemble, hired a bang-up group of singers and a choir, and turned this bomb into an entertaining rock-concert tailor-made for Wildhorn's posse of middlebrow hinterland admirers."Well, if Phoenix isn't the hinterlands, I can't imagine what is. So everybody out there who, like me, enjoyed Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde: Brush the shaggy hair from your mid-size brows, squint hard at the page, follow along with your fingers and move your lips. I'll keep this simple for you: Gentry's tour of The Civil War opens Tuesday, May 30, at Gammage. I'll probably go, if I'm caught up enough on my hunting and gathering and crude attempts at art on the wall of my cave.

The Civil War, which premièred at Houston's Alley Theatre in 1997 and spawned two Atlantic Records CDs, The Civil War -- The Complete Work and The Civil War -- The Nashville Sessions, in 1998, opened last spring on Broadway. Despite the three obligatory Tony nominations, it flopped. As noted above, the show has been massively retooled for the road, with the object of turning it from a clunky, cumbersome Broadway hash into a sort of non-narrative collage of songs, in genres including country, pop, gospel, folk, R&B and rock, on the theme of the war between the states. Rather than following a single plot, the show alternates among a variety of diverse characters -- with emblematic names like "The Confederate Captain," "The Slave," "The Slave's Wife," "The Union Captain," "The Soldier's Wife," "The Abolitionist" and so forth -- singing about their experiences and feelings.

It's closer, in form, to a concert than to a standard musical, and this is reflected in the staging. The orchestra is on the stage with the performers, on an abstract set of broken columns, with a spotlight shifting focus among the soloists. The approach has been winning solid reviews and packed houses.

The reviews have been especially warm toward Larry Gatlin, who plays the Confederate Captain. Not to indulge in too much Variety-style commercial speculation, but Gatlin and Frank Wildhorn should make a potent box-office team on the road -- surely they have, between them, enough middlebrow hinterland admirers to make a fortune.

Performances of The Civil War are at 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 30; 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 31; 8 p.m. Thursday, June 1; 8 p.m. Friday, June 2; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, June 3; and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, June 4, at Gammage Auditorium, Mill and Apache in Tempe. Tickets range from $27 to $49.50. For details call 480-965-3434 (Gammage) or 480-503-5555 (Dillard's).

 
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