Atlanta The Musical is a gorgeous new theatrical work, both intimate and
epic, historical and immediate, filled with powerful performances,
memorable tunes, and a timeless story of love in the time of war.

Marcus Hummon and Adrian Pasdar have fashioned a Civil War tale unlike
any we have seen before. In the midsummer of 1864, in the hills of Allatoona,
Georgia, a Union soldier happens upon a lone Confederate and, in a kill or be
killed moment, bayonets him to death.  Paul, the solider in blue, dons the
dead Confederate’s uniform and his identity and soon finds himself among
Colonel Medraut’s regiment, on its retreat as the Yankees invade Georgia.
Traveling along with Shakespeare devotee Medraut are three slaves,
Hamlet, Cleopatra, and Puck, who perform scenes from the Bard’s plays for
the Colonel’s entertainment. (When Medraut speaks of “The Book,” he is
referring, not to the Bible, but to The Collected Works of William
Shakespeare.) The fourth member of the Colonel’s Shakespearean troupe
has been killed, and Paul (who now calls himself Andrew, the name of the
deceased Confederate soldier) is ordered to take his place.  When putting
on Andrew’s uniform for the first time, Paul discovered love letters from a
woman named Atlanta, and as he now begins to write his own, to her, he
finds himself falling in love with a woman he has never met.

Hummon, whose songs for The Dixie Chicks, Wynonna, and Tim McGraw,
among others, have made him one of Nashville’s most successful songwriters,
has composed an extraordinary score for Atlanta, which blends bluegrass,
Broadway, and R&B. The show opens with Paul’s stirring “A Soldier’s Prayer”
(“Lord keep me safe tonight, in my hour of trial and dread”), one of several
songs whose guitar and mandolin chords are reminiscent of James Taylor’s
oeuvre.  “Somethin’s Fishy in Denmark” borrows the melody of Dixie to tell
Hamlet’s tale with banjo accompaniment.  “The Hollow of My Heart” is one
of Atlanta’s exquisite love letters. (“In the hollow of my heart, hillsides grow
green. In the margins of my soul, there’s a note you wrote to me long ago.
Remember that you promised to always come home.”) “Catch the Dog” is
an amusing ditty about hunting the only available meat in time of war.
(Don’t tell PETA about lyrics like, “If you want meat for dinner, gotta catch
the dog. You got barbecued Boxer, sautéed Spaniel…”) Sonnet XVIII sets
Shakespeare’s oft quoted words (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s
day?”) to a troubadour’s melody. “When I Get There” is a rousing hymn to
the Promised Land—New Orleans. (“No more war, when I get there. No
more hunger, when I get there.”) “Before This is Over” is sung twice, the first
time blending R&P and pop-rock rhythms, then later with great poignancy
by a man lamenting the loss of his beloved.  (“Before this is over, I will say a
verse over your grave…”) Finally, the title song (“I’m coming home Atlanta,
please baby wait for me.”) is one the audience finds itself humming as they
exit the theater.

Co-directors Randall Arney and Adrian Pasdar have assembled a
magnificent cast, each of whom has probably never been better, and have
elicited moving performances from each.  (That all seven are superb singers
only adds to their work as actors.)  Golden voiced Ken Barnett, as
Paul/Andrew, gives us a man who grows richer as a human being for having
taken on the identity of another man.  Fresh from Broadway’s Tarzan, the
gorgeous and multi-talented Merle Dandridge does exquisite work as
Cleopatra, a slave who defines the word “lady.”  Leonard Roberts, as
Hamlet, proves that he is not only a powerful actor but an equally powerful
singer as well.  Moe Daniels is sensational as scrappy Puck, an androgenous
sprite who grew up wild in the forest. Gravely voiced John Fleck, as Colonel
Medraut, shows why he is one of our busiest and most versatile actors,
creating a richly complex character, a man who can bed his slave mistress
one moment, flog Hamlet another, and then sit entranced by the
Shakespearean poetry they recite.  Travis Johns is suitably unlikable as
Lieutenant Virgil, the Colonel’s right hand man. JoNell Kennedy, in the
relatively small title role, gives Atlanta great dignity and a beautiful singing
voice. The backstage chorus is made up of Keith Arthur Bolden, Michael G.
Hawkins, Victoria Platt, Tasha Taylor, and Quinn Vanantwerp, experienced
and talented theater vets all, who also understudy the seven lead actors.

Hummon’s songs are accompanied by a five terrific musicians, musical
director Kevin Toney on keyboards, Chris Ross on percussion, Karen Briggs on
violin, Ryan Cross on cello and bass, and leader Andrew Rollins on half a
dozen or so instruments in the guitar family.  John Arnone’s set features huge
proscenium-high tattered flags left and right (Confederate and Union), the
skeletons of leaf-bare trees, and a trio of tent-like hangings upstage on
which are projected (to great effect) actual black and white Civil War
photographs, color paintings and photos, and the words of Atlanta’s letters
to Andrew. Debra McGuire, who previously designed the magnificent
costumes for Boston Marriage, does very different but equally fine work here,
the costumes for Hamlet, Cleopatra, and Puck revealing much about the
people who wear them.  Daniel Ionazzi’s lighting adds greatly to the various
moods. Brian Hsieh’s sound design is especially powerful in battle sounds
which surround the audience. The talented Kay Cole has choreographed
several dances, especially for “Catch the Dog.”

Creator/director Adrian Pasdar has said, “At its heart, Atlanta is the story of
a nation in search of itself, and I can’t think of a more appropriate time than
the current political landscape to retell this story in a way that’s compelling,
entertaining and utterly relevant.”

Atlanta The Musical succeeds at being all three.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
November 29, 2007
Photos: Michael Lamont

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