Thursday, December 2, 2021

ATF delivers a triumph! ‘unCivil War’

By Mark Frost, Chronicle Editor

Adirondack Theatre Festival hits the jackpot with the new comedy musical unCivil War, which runs through Saturday, July 18, at the Charles Wood Theater.

I had a feeling this show might be really good — but I never anticipated that it would excel in virtually every facet. Even before it started, just looking at the Civil War-era set was a treat — major-league like everything that was to follow.

The story, the songs, the music, the singing the dancing, the acting, the lighting (loved how they projected huge shadows on the wall), the laughs and bits of business, the tidbits of history, the timing, the energy.

So many amazing things unfolded that I found myself shaking my head in amazement — you mean, they thought of that, too? Some would-be horses were instantly irresistible. A comic depiction of Mary Todd Lincoln brought us to its knees.

The script trots out such intricate detail about famous Civil War figures — from Lincoln, Grant and Lee to Sherman and McClellan — that I assume there must be truth to it — McClellan’s vanity, Sherman’s missing fingers, Mary Todd Lincoln’s abbreviated height.

Seriously funny  — J. Robert Spencer, Matthew Stocke and Brian Clarles Rooney in UnCivil War.
Seriously funny — J. Robert Spencer, Matthew Stocke and Brian Clarles Rooney in UnCivil War.

As irreverent as the show is — some of it is pure farce — I’m assuming that part of what inspired the creators and makes it all work is that they’re bouncing off truth.

My one fear had been that they would descend — as liberal orthodoxy now dictates — into bashing the South. But they didn’t ruin the show by stooping to that. A friend of ours said: They’re equal opportunity offenders.

When you see a musical on Broadway, every aspect is done to the hilt — show biz maximized. What we saw there in Lion King, Book of Mormon, Billy Elliot, Putnam County Spelling Bee ATF delivers here in unCivil War.

These are people who know exactly what they’re doing, playing at the top of their game. Credit to the whole ensemble, from creators to director to the cast and crew.

And credit to ATF’s new Producing/Artistic Director Chad Rabinovitz, too. I told Chad in the lobby after opening night that he’s raised the bar. How he introduces each show to the audience is a performance turn in itself. He’s got stand-up comedian in him. And as a showman, some P.T. Barnum. Chad told me months ago his mantra is “go big or go home” when it comes to selling it.

Even in his first exposure, at January’s ATF Winter Benefit, he promised the moon, put his neck on the line.

A bad season would have cooked his goose. But instead ATF delivers this golden egg. Chad’ll have some room to run now. unCivil War is the kind of achievement that elevates and enlivens everyone associated with it — including the audience and even the larger community.

We left the theater feeling fabulous. We walked through City Park. We stopped at a bench and posted a quick rave review on The Chronicle Facebook page. Separately, managing editor Cathy DeDe minutes later did the same.

We walked on. It was a splendid summer evening. We saw that the Queensbury Hotel had not just one live musical act, but two — one outdoors, the other in Fenimore’s.

We crossed the street to Morgan & Company. I hadn’t eaten since lunch. But I didn’t get to eat anything now either. Too busy. Had a beer, got immersed in conversations with a succession of friends passing by.

Caught up in the moment and the mood, which seemed to envelop the whole downtown. Many people on the streets. “Glens Falls is happening,” I said more than once that night. “I mean, it’s happening right now.”

‘UnCivil War’ is one for the ages

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

Let’s just start by saying, these guys are having so much fun you can’t help but have fun, too. And that’s just the least of what’s so perfectly wonderful about UnCivil War.

The Adirondack Theatre Festival has a winner for the ages with this new musical.

It’s aiming for Broadway, and my humble North Country take is, it stands a solid chance.

It’s all-male on stage, except for the stand-up bass player. Yet, if a show so masculine could be called buxom, that’s the word I’d use: Rich, overflowing. The word conjures thoughts of things lively and good-tempered. Watch how these actors saunter, comfortable in their britches, to see that point made.

The oversize set brims over the stage with a worn and picturesquely littered old front porch, open slats that let the light play, stylized trees and a campfire out by the band, who also sit on stage.

It’s all lit to a golden brown that falls somewhere between the sepia tones of a Mathew Brady photograph, the long hours of sunset, remembrances of the hazy past and amber waves of grain. The shadows the actors throw on the side walls of the Wood Theater conjure magic lantern shows.

The all-male cast makes me think of Monty Python, and then the brothers in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Certain front-of-stage numbers had that irreverent sense of a macho sendup. Others got right down and poignant.

The actors are unique and fabulous, each: Michael Abbott Jr. as the unhinged William Tecumseh Sherman, Antwayn Hopper as the cast-against-race Robert E. Lee, Ian Lowe a chameleon as William Seward and then Lee’s serving man.

The bluegrass-inspired songs are engaging and varied, with mild references to rap, pop and other modern genres. The words are smart. My one complaint: You couldn’t always catch them.

The gags everyone is talking about, I’ll not give up here. Better you discover these yourself.

Don’t wait to reserve seats: The show only continues to this Saturday, July 18, and tickets will go fast. Some performances have already sold out. Call: 480-4878.

Those gags? Okay: One comes in the person of Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Brian Charles Rooney, who milked the audience reaction without going overtop, true to the character but exquisitely funny. He’s got a sweet face that played equally well in his role as the do-nothing fop general McLellan, as well as a killer voice that hits low nicely but then nearly breaks the rafters on some impossibly high notes.

Another gag is a communication between Lincoln — J. Robert Spencer, the Tony-nominated lead of both Jersey Boys and Next to Normal on Broadway — and Mitchell Jarvis as Ulysses Grant. (He and Matthew Stocke, who played the lead storyteller, Zebulon, were my favorites on stage, just so solid). This gag just delves deeper into the joke, adding physical comedy that ends with a major pratfall — then it closes with a nonchalant drink. You’ll see.

The show’s premise is that five old codgers, the last remaining Civil War veterans, still spry at ages 190 or so, gather to bury one of their comrades whose dying wish it was for them to tell the story of the war — from their perspective as Army grunts on both sides, Union and Confederate.

There’s so much funny stuff, equal opportunity offending (and a lot of “F” words, if that matters to you). Only one line took a cheap shot, I thought.

The show also aims to get at something about legacy, how we tell our stories, the difference between screwing up and failing on the way to something better.

Mr. Spencer as Lincoln is three-quarters bumbling fool and half kind old coot. There are times he, like his fellow actors, grins along just in charmed enjoyment of the action. Twice, though, late in the show, his smile rises all in grace from the character: Looking down at his troubled wife, and then acknowledging the soldier-storyteller, Zebulon — there’s the heart of it.

Copyright © 2015 Lone Oak Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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