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'The Civil War' helps mark sesquicentennial

Kenny Kemp
David Selby portrays Lincoln in Thursday's performance of the Light Opera Guild's "The Civil War." His voice will be recorded for subsequent performances. At all performances, Larry Groce will lead into the show with a ballad.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Helping to connect West Virginia's Sesquicentennial celebration to Charleston's FestivALL is the Light Opera Guild's production of "The Civil War," which opens today at the Culture Center Theater.

The Tony-nominated show is an ambitious musical that features projected images from the time, as well as the words of some of the era's iconic figures, including President Abraham Lincoln, abolitionists, poet Walt Whitman and authors Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.

Nina Pasinetti, the show's director, said, "It's a show unlike most musical pieces. It doesn't have a thread of characters with a lot of dialogue between each other. It's more of a thematic type of show that shows the experiences of the soldiers, leaders and the families left behind.

"It shows the effects of the war on both sides."

Pasinetti said the musical constructs a kind of memory of the past, using music interspersed with selections taken from letters, news reports, speeches and diaries.

"It's a very moving piece," she said. "I think no one who sees this will not be affected. I think it makes us remember the bloodiness of American wars."

"The Civil War" showcases the terrible loss of the conflict, Pasinetti said.

Among the various set pieces, there's a scene explaining the death of a soldier to a nurse who cared for him, another about the hopes of a slave wishing to find a husband who was sold on the auction block, and a scene of a son writing a letter to his father to tell him that he'd faced the enemy bravely and that he was going to die.

"It's a very poignant show," Pasinetti said.

Composed by Frank Wildhorn, with music and words by Jack Murphy and Gregory Boyd, the play was written to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Alley Theater in Houston.

Pasinetti explained, "They'd just come off the musical 'Jekyll and Hyde,' and Wildhorn wanted something more commemorative."

He also wanted something relatable to a broader audience and to connect them to history.

"He was a little concerned that his son didn't enjoy history the way he thought he should," Pasinetti said. "So, he wanted to create something people could relate to more than an old book taught in a classroom."

Pasinetti said she hopes the play helps connect West Virginia audiences to the history that forced the creation of the state, although she said West Virginia's statehood doesn't really figure into the show.

"It's a broad look at the war and the time, but nothing about West Virginia."

As part of the Sesquicentennial celebration, Thursday's performance will feature actor and West Virginia native David Selby performing the role of Lincoln.

Selby has portrayed Lincoln several times over the length of his career -- mostly on the stage. In 1965, he played Abraham Lincoln in "The Last Days of Lincoln" and "Prologue to Glory." In 1968, he was Lincoln again, in "Mr. High Pockets."

He also played the 16th president in a 1998 episode of "Touched by an Angel" before taking on the roll on the stage again in 1999 ("Lincoln and James") and 2009 ("The Heavens are Hung in Black"). Most recently, he played the president in last year's production of "Necessary Sacrifices" at Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated.

Pasinetti said, "He's kind of an expert on the character. When I sent him the script, which had excerpts from Lincoln's speeches, he called me back and told me he'd taken the liberty of returning them to their original form."

She laughed.

Selby's appearance is today only, which also is the only free performance of the show.

"We're glad to have him, and we've got his costume," Pasinetti said. "But he's recorded his lines for the rest of the performances. Lincoln is usually a voiceover in the show, but David happened to be coming to the area, and we were delighted he could do it."

The free performance is part of the four-day Sesquicentennial celebration at the Capitol Complex. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis in the Culture Center lobby beginning at 2:30 p.m.

While there are a lot of serious issues being discussed or remembered during "The Civil War" and Pasinetti hopes that audiences will find the show enlightening, she said it is still a lot of fun.

"The music is amazing," she said. "It's very hummable and very nonforgettable." Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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