Christmas Eve in 1864 is the setting for Paula Vogel's A Civil War Christmas, onstage at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights through Jan. 3. When stacked up against most of the holiday-oriented fluff in San Diego theaters this month, this talky musical that originally premiered in 2008 is intellectually rigorous. But with the cast of nine on a bare stage, seated much of the time with open books containing the script in their possession, A Civil War Christmas for all its gravitas is in essence a two-hour staged reading, with music.
Now there's something to be said for that music, with not only the cast members but also the sonorous Encore Vocal Ensemble behind the stage and a pianist and fiddler handling live accompaniment. The expected Christmas carols notwithstanding, the songs from the Civil War era that evoke the horrors of the war, the plight of the freed slaves and the desperate mood of the nation divided are rendered with spirit and solemnity. When the music stops to tell the various intertwining stories of this night before Christmas the production flags. There are too many characters and subplots, for one thing, and for another some in the cast rely too heavily upon the script they're holding. Others, it should be said, seem completely at ease. Taylor Henderson, as one of the freed slaves, sings beautifully and brings gentleness to the wartime atmosphere. Cashae Monya succeeds in multiple roles, including that of a child lost in Washington, D.C. Skyler Syllivan has the stature and projects the dignity of President Lincoln.
A Civil War Christmas would benefit from more animation on stage than merely actors sitting down, standing up and then sitting down again. What's more, revisiting this important time in American history requires a you-are-there sensation that goes beyond the songs of the time and the period clothing. Limited as the Diversionary space is, screen projections could have amped up the drama. Or something as simple as a map of the territory along either side of the Potomac River, a symbolic and very real dividing line, might have more vividly taken us back to a critical time in our history.
A Civil War Christmas runs through Jan. 3 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. $29-$51. diversionary.org
Rent: Based on Puccini’s La Bohème, this musical about young adults struggling to get by in New York City’s Lower East Side was a huge success on Broadway. Presented by California Youth Conservatory Theatre, it opens Dec. 26 at the Lyceum Theatre in the Gaslamp. cyctheatre.com
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Now in its 18th year, this holiday classic tells the musical tale of a green grump who plans to ruin the holidays for the town of Whoville. Directed by James Vásquez, it plays through Dec. 26 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
A Christmas Carol: The mean and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge gets visited by three ghosts and, well, you probably know the rest. Adapted to be a musical by Sean Murray for Cygnet Theatre, it runs through Dec. 27 at the Old Town Theatre in Old Town. cygnettheatre.com
Lamb’s Festival of Christmas: The annual musical theater performance features classic songs and is set in Little Italy in the late ’40s. It runs through Dec. 27 at the Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. lambsplayers.org
This Wonderful Life: James Leaming stars in a one-man stage adaptation of the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life. Written by Steve Murray, it runs through Dec. 27 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
The 1940s Radio Hour: A family-friendly musical about a quaint New York radio station that’s about to air its last broadcast of holiday music. It runs through Dec. 31 at the New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
A Civil War Christmas: The San Diego premiere of the musical pageant set toward the end of the American Civil War. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel, it runs through Jan. 3 at the Diversionary Theatre in Hillcrest. diversionary.org
MOMologues: The equal parts funny and serious play about the trials and tribulations of motherhood. Presented by Different Stages, it runs through Jan. 10 at Swedenborg Hall in Hillcrest. differentstages.biz