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John Horan: Wayside's 'Shenandoah': Heart-felt but plodding

Brandon Wells and Troy Chandler Van Meter
Brandon Wells, left, and Troy Chandler Van Meter appear in Wayside Theatre's "Shenandoah," running through July 3. Courtesy photo (Buy photo)

By John Horan Jr. - jhoran@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- "Shenandoah" in the Shenandoah Valley? The musical homage to a valley family during the Civil War seems a natural for a local theater. The Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre chose the show as its inaugural production in 1984. And Wayside Theatre, recognizing the approach of the war's sesquicentennial, opened its production Sunday night.

A large depiction of Signal Knob in the background drives home the local connection and the characters and their music strike chords of familiarity, but while the dramatic situations are often gripping and the actors' portrayals heartfelt, "Shenandoah" is a slog.

Directed by Warner Crocker, "Shenandoah" is less compelling than other Civil War-themed productions Wayside has presented, including Crocker's own "Lighting the Fuse." The musical, by Gary Geld and Peter Udell, spurns the gallantry and romance of the Blue and the Gray. Rather, it is a staunchly anti-war polemic.

Much of the lengthy first act is consumed with folksy vignettes highlighting family tensions and foibles amid brief intrusions of the war. The plot arrives late.

The protagonist, Charlie Anderson, is intent on, as he puts it, "sittin' out the war." Unmoved by the passions of states' rights or abolitionism, this proud farmer sees no point in sending any of his five sons into combat. Even when a Confederate officer asks to marry his only daughter, Anderson's sole concern is whether the man is sufficiently aware of the enigmatic nature of womanhood.

His fence-sitting, however, doesn't sit well with Confederate partisans or the Union troops who pass through. Anderson deflects all their censure until his youngest son is taken prisoner by the federals. That outrage impels Anderson to lead most of his family in a search for the lad, which engulfs them all in the horror of war.

Tom Simpson is a solid, stolid Charlie, whose stiff-set jaw exemplifies his steely principles and world-weary outlook. Though humor flickers across his visage occasionally, Simpson evinces deep pathos, especially when he recalls his beloved, deceased wife. His robust baritone drives home the often mournful music.

As Anderson's daughter Jenny, Katherine Yacko exudes her father's grit, softened by femininity. After a shrill solo number, she redeems herself with a smoothly sung duet with Thomasin Savaiano, who plays her sister-in-law.

The rambunctious Anderson sons are played by William Diggle, Eddie Staver III, Brandon Shockey and Aaron Mann. Also effective are Troy Chandler Van Meter and Brandon Wells as, respectively, the youngest son and a slave.

David Maga is charmingly conflicted as Jenny's suitor. Richard O. Follett is the home-spun pastor.

Many of the actors double as musicians, deftly handling an odd complement of instruments that emphasize the show's down-home quality.

Til Turner provides an open rough-hewn set. The period costumes are by Tamara M. Carruthers, the lighting by Paul M. Callahan.

"Shenandoah" continues through July 3. The box office phone number is 869-1776.


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