With wave after wave of gloriously intertwined harmonies sweeping from the stage, the sixteen voices dressed in varying attires of early last century sing, “I’ll see you when the war’s over, over there … and who knows when I’ll make it back home.” Swaying together from evident swells of a great ocean, they are part of the massive movement of soldiers, nurses, and personnel heading to a war-torn Europe in 1918. The story of one volunteer nurse, a soldier she meets en route, and a sister who seeks his help post-war to find a sister she believes is still alive (counter to the “missing in action” report she received) is the subject of a moving new musical, Atlantic:America & the Great War. Written by Ryan Bernsten and Desiree Staples, with music by Christopher Anselmo, and produced in partnership by The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Music Theatre Project of Northwestern University, Atlantic: America & the Great War brings to intimate focus a great, worldwide war’s impact on three of the many millions forever permanently affected by its fury. With a story gripping and captivating and a score both mesmerizing and inspiring, the new musical is given a rousing, memorable premiere by a university-age cast full of rich voices and fine acting abilities.
Singing with a voice reaping in anticipation of an adventure, Jane (Mariah Copeland) decides to join the wave across the sea to help as a nurse. Like the full-of-bravado recently recruited soldiers (like her, still almost kids) who lustily sing as if off to a party, “There’s a world at war, over there,” she is full of excitement as she unsuccessfully tries to convince her more reticent sister, Annabelle, to join her. After Jane is reported missing but with no witness accounts, a mysterious package from a guy in Memphis arrives for Annabelle; and its contents convince her maybe this ex-soldier may know what happened to her beloved sister. Abigail Stephenson reigns supreme in the role of Annabelle as she sings with a commanding voice edged with intensity and strong in determination of a sister willing to leave Nebraska and head wherever it takes to find the truth about her sister and even about herself. When she reaches Memphis to find a now-crippled, young veteran named Jesse who spends his time carving ducks from wood, Annabelle’s resemblance to her missing sister (“I remember those eyes,” he sings) jolts Jesse out of his state of post-war seclusion eventually to persuade him to join her in her journey to a war still raging. Neal Davidson does not display quite the strength of vocals that Ms. Stephenson brings to her role, but he has all the needed nuances of character to play the soldier who journeys with Annabelle on a mission even he does not quite know why it is so important to do so.
The odd pair of travelers — a Southern-white, limping veteran with leg wounds still raw with pain and an African-American, young woman bold in her stubborn-like resolve — are surrounded by a sea of changing persona, themselves caught up in various ways in the Great War. David H. Bell directs their coordinated, stage-filling movements in scenes that provide captivating flavors of a world at war. Often the large ensemble becomes the story’s collective narrator, singing lines of unfolding action with voices clear and harmonies complex. Musical Director Patrick Summers brings the feel of America’s 1918 period in the music wonderfully played by him and the band of fiddle (Sarah Jones), guitar (Philippa Caesar), and double bass (Callum Cronin).
Atlantic:America & the Great War effectively tells the story of a war’s impact on an entire globe and also on just a couple of the millions caught in its web. That there is often space for humor and a possible romance as well as for getting to know enough about those two individuals to care deeply what happens to them is a real strength of the new musical. The probability of one African American woman actually being accepted in WWI as a volunteer nurse and of another one heading across the country, the sea, and another continent on trains and a ship with a white guy (and neither/both of them being arrested/accosted) is unlikely to have happened in reality of that time. The power of this story and the emotional impact of the music, however, soon help us forget the realities of black/white America in 1918 and instead just to believe in the story as told.
On a plywood, raised stage that eerily resembles a platform built for a man’s hanging, a young man sits at a matching wood table staring at us with eyes pleading for our willingness to hear his story. On trial for the murder of his brother, James MacGregor sits before us as those gathered in that courtroom to hear his own narrative of last-chance defense. Much evidence, as we will hear, has already been given that clearly points to him as the poisoner of his older brother, Thomas; but the witness he will eventually call forth as the climax of his tale full of mystery, magic, and mystique will raise more than a few hairs on audience necks. Scott Gilmour stars as James in Velvet Evening Seance (created by Ross MacKay and Suzie Miller) in a one-person tour de force that muddies completely the boundary between what is real and what is illusion, what is improbable truth and what is calculated lie.
The accused James tells a tale of how he and his brother became renown seers, bringing voices of the dead back to visit grieving love ones through their staged seances. The relationship he had with his now-dead brother was one of younger-brother adoration mixed with a long-felt jealousy for a brother much more loved by their strict, Methodist minister father than he. Scott Gilmour unfolds the story of their lives together using every means from “finger people” moving about the table to a rolled piece of cloth that becomes his father grieving for his dead wife. In a voice often restrained in tone of delivery but always deeply intense in its determination to deliver his side of the story, James takes us through his twenty-one-year lifetime that has tread an incredible path for such a young man. Mr. Gilmour’s eyes pierce into the unseen audience to convey the sincerity of James’ truths, dipping often their glance as he seeks to recall painful and difficult details. Mr. Gilmour, under the incredibly insightful direction of Ross MacKay, makes powerful use of frequent pauses in his monologue to allow the impact of his demeanor and his words fully to sink in. His entire body becomes an instrument in the telling, especially his constantly moving hands who have an entire language all their own to convey their parts of his story. Magic itself becomes a means of conveyance as director and actor combine their abilities to create a performance as fascinating to watch as it is intriguing to hear.
Music becomes another important narrator of the story as Jim Harbourne commands the keyboard of a side-stage piano, using melodies to shift the moods, heighten the tension, and provide the period setting as well as to suddenly burst into impactful sound effects. Another reigning star in the production is the lighting, designed by Andrew Gannon. The looming shadows become as many characters of the tale as the changing voices and body postures of Scott Gilmour himself. The dynamics of the perfectly executed lighting scheme are a show unto themselves and are a great partner for the solo actor in conveying his remembered past and his torturous present. The final result of all efforts of director, musician, lighting designer, and star is an hour, ten-minutes where every second is one anticipating what secrets the next second may reveal.
Wikipedia reports that Cecil John Rhodes “was a British businessman, mining magnate and politician in South Africa, who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896.” He also donated land and money to found the University of Cape Town, where his mighty statue and its symbolism of South Africa’s history of racism, apartheid, and colonialism became the focus in 2015 of a movement called “Rhodes Must Fall.” Students from UCT have created in conjunction with Kgomosto Khunoane a staged documentary of the discussions, debates, and often fiery deliberations that led many like them to protest, boycott, and even riot until the statue in fact came down. The result is an eighty-minute, live production that is highly educational, immensely captivating, and emotionally exhausting.
A cast of seven students — all black but of varied economic, gender, sexual identity, and even racial-mix backgrounds — enact their planning meetings leading up to and following the actual protests. Opinions stretch widely in desired options and violently in felt passions on any topic put on the group’s agenda; but the unifier becomes their shared heritage of deep discrimination in this post-apartheid world where whites still rule and dominate the administration, faculty, subject matter, and culture of their university. When they do unify, it is often expressed in the anger, resolution, and courage shown in their tight-formed group dances empowered by stomping feet, claps against hands and legs, and harmonies of chants as old as Africa itself. And while the fight to de-colonize their university and ultimately their entire country is their sworn goal, they find they cannot avoid confronting their own divisions and deep-set prejudices among them. Issues of economic privilege versus township poverty/heritage, African male dominance and pride versus women’s struggle to be in equal spotlight, blacks versus coloreds among them, or the presence of queers and transgenders even among those in their small group all become sparks for ignition, explosion, and eventual learning and change.
Each member of this talented cast has several moments to shine with singular and powerful revelations of strong-felt opinions and touching life stories. Collectively, the ensemble both breaths and moves as one entity as well as separates into shifting subgroups of alliances and adversaries. Their recounting of this recent history becomes all the more impactful as projections of the actual demonstrations and police abuse are flashed on the wall behind them. Ameera Conrad, Oarabile Ditsele, Zandile Madliwa, Thando Mangcu, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Sihle Mnqwazana, and Cleo Raatus are each a star and together a monumental testament to first-hand witnesses telling the stories an entire world needs to hear.
Rating: 5 E
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