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Restaging 'The Civil War'

ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| Theater

May 31, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Civil War" died a quick death on the battlefield of Broadway last year, its attempt at an epic musical dramatization of the War Between the States succumbing to withering cannon fire from the New York critics.

Hoping to revive the show on the national touring circuit, its creators summoned an Englishman with only modest knowledge of how the Civil War was fought, but firm ideas about why "The Civil War" had flopped.

"I think it was a mistake to turn it into a Broadway-type book musical," said Stephen Rayne, the director recruited to put "The Civil War" in shape and on the road, including a stand next week at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

At the invitation of co-creator Gregory Boyd, Rayne saw the show during a pre-Broadway tryout run in New Haven. The two were working together at the time on another show, a New York revival of Tennessee Williams' "Not About Nightingales," co-produced by Houston's Alley Theatre, where Boyd is artistic director.

"I had some strong opinions about why I didn't think it was working," Rayne said recently from his home outside London.

Boyd clearly respects Rayne's theatrical savvy, having since hired him to direct three productions at the Alley--Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge," Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" and Rayne's adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." The Broadway version of "The Civil War," in Rayne's view, was a case of a show trying to do too much on too grand a scale.

Instead of carrying the thread of a story through the evening, Rayne decided the production should be more like a concert, focusing on Frank Wildhorn's songs. And since those songs are thoroughly modern in their mixture of country, folk, rock, soul and pop, Rayne saw no point in making "The Civil War" a period piece. He pored over half a dozen books on the war to cull poignant letters exchanged by soldiers and their loved ones, and eloquent speeches by statesmen such as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Borrowing tactics from Ken Burns' television documentary "The Civil War" (which Rayne found "gripping" when he saw it on the BBC several years before his current assignment), he armed his actors with plenty of trenchant and emotional words from the past to lend historical authority and immediacy. Instead of staged battle scenes, Matthew Brady's groundbreaking battlefield photos would be used to give a sense of the carnage.

"You've got to see the Civil War through a modern perspective," Rayne said. To suggest that this is a modern look back more than a traditional costume drama, he has the cast begin the play in modern casual clothes--jeans, vests, suspenders--and gradually don the uniforms of the Blue and the Gray.

Larry Gatlin, the veteran country singer who shares star billing with pop-gospel singer BeBe Winans, endorses Rayne's approach. He thinks it made sense to have an English director guide a work based on one of the most harrowing and still emotionally resonant episodes in American history.

"He didn't bring in any preconceived notions," Gatlin said over a car phone from Virginia, where he had taken a few days' golfing vacation before rejoining the touring company. "He had no ax to grind. He said, 'What are the facts? How can we tell the story?' "

Gatlin, 52, rode high on the country charts during the early 1980s as lead singer of a harmonizing sibling trio, the Gatlin Brothers. He branched into musical theater during the 1990s and has accelerated his theatrical career since the Gatlin Brothers disbanded a few years ago. He recently took time off from "The Civil War" to fulfill a previous commitment to star in a production of "The Music Man" in Austin, Texas, where he lives.

Gatlin says he first viewed "The Civil War" as a good career move in keeping with his musical theater ambitions, and he relishes the music of composer Wildhorn, a pop-influenced Populist who doesn't appeal to most critics but has built a large following with the hits "Jekyll & Hyde" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel."

Gatlin's commitment deepened and became more personal as he responded to the show's depiction of the human costs of the war and the horrors of slavery.

"I was so moved by what was going on. We are not yet healed completely from that war and the racial tension that spawned it." He hopes "The Civil War" can promote understanding and healing.

Gatlin, a folksy man who speaks with a mellow Western twang, can attest to the war's long-lasting reverberations. He grew up in Houston, part of the old Confederacy, and he admits that some of the beliefs handed down to him were ones he has had to overcome and disown.

"In the '50s growing up, black people were less than white people where I lived. With all due respect to my raisin', I had to get above that."

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