Musical Theatre Guild closes its strongest season in years with an imaginatively staged, powerfully performed “concert staged reading” of the 1975 Broadway hit Shenandoah.

 Based on the 1975 movie of the same name and set during the American Civil War, Shenandoah focuses on 60ish widowed Virginia farmer Charlie Anderson (James Stewart in the movie, John Cullum on Broadway, and Gordon Goodman at MTG) and his brood of six strapping lads and one feisty gal ages 10 to teens to 20s.

Despite being citizens of a Confederate state, Charlie and his progeny have never seen the need to employ slave labor, a practice Papa Anderson finds morally unacceptable in any case. No wonder, therefore, that the Anderson family patriarch is vehemently opposed to any of his sons going off to fight in a war that doesn’t concern them, despite considerable outside pressure for his sons to enlist.

Then Charlie’s youngest is taken prisoner by Union soldiers—and things suddenly get personal.

James Lee Barrett, Philip Rose, and Peter Udell won a Tony for Shenandoah’s book, based on Barrett’s screenplay, with additional nominations for Best Musical, Best Original Score (music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Udell), Best Featured Actress (Donna Theodore as Anne), and Best Choreography (Robert Tucker)

Cullum won the Best Actor Tony, and after seeing Goodman’s towering performance at the first of Shenandoah’s two scheduled stagings, this reviewer can easily imagine why. Like Tevye, Zorba, Henry Higgins, Harold Hill, Don Quijote/Cervantes, and J. Pierrepont Finch, Charlie Anderson is the kind of role which virtually guarantees nominations and awards in the hands of the right actor, which Goodman most definitely is.

Shenandoah is also a terrific showcase for young musical theater triple-threats, and though some in the MTG cast are outside the sons’ and daughters’ age ranges, each and every one shines in ensemble numbers and/or featured solos.

 Mark C. Reis (Jacob), Roger Befeler (James), Dan Callaway (Nathan), Ciarán McCarthy (John), Aaron Scheff (Henry), and Mateo Gonzales (Robert aka Boy) are absolutely terrific as the Anderson sons, as are Melissa Lyons Caldretti as daughter Jenny and Kim Huber as James’s wife Anne.

Also featured are Morgan Etnyre as slave boy Gabriel, Zachary Ford as Jenny’s sweetheart Sam, and Paul Keith as Reverend Boyd, with the couldn’t-be-better supporting team of Chuck Bergman, Christopher Carothers, Jason Evans, Joe Hart, David Holmes, Payson Lewis, and David Zack completing the cast in multiple roles (both male and female).

Shenandoah’s book resonates as strongly as ever with its antiwar sentiments and humanitarian themes. Its music is less to this reviewer’s liking, not being a fan of 19th Century folk songs or their 1960s revival, though for those who are fonder of this genre, songs like “Raise The Flag Of Dixie,” “We Make A Beautiful Pair,” “Violets And Silverbells,” and “Freedom” are likely to inspire repeat listens.

Less open to debate is the power of Shenandoah’s book and the rich, resonant roles its writers have created for the musical’s large cast of characters.

Despite a mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal per Actors Equity rules, leading man Goodman and company deliver performances that in lesser hands would take weeks if not months to develop. That Calvin Remsberg’s inspired direction belies the term “staged reading” at every turn only makes this MTG production the virtual equivalent of what you’d see on many a CLO stage, minus sets and costume changes and with scripts in hand for dialog sequences.

Goodman’s Charlie more than stands up to the year’s finest leading male performances. In fact, so prepared was Goodman to bring Charlie to three-dimensional life that when he suddenly found himself scriptless at a key dramatic moment at Monday’s Opening Night, the scene went on without a visible hitch. Goodman’s baritone (previously heard in numerous MTG readings and in his Scenie-winning lead actor turn in Children Of The Night) is as fine as they get, and songs like “I’ve Heard It All Before,” Meditation,” and “Papa’s Gonna Make It Alright” each provoke deserved cheers. That Goodman gets only two goes at Charlie is close to criminal.

 All six Anderson “boys” not only deserve applause both for acting and for vocalizing but also for executing choreographer Sha Newman’s lively dance moves with admirable precision and verve, particularly in the showstopping “Next To Lovin’ (I Like Fightin’).” Befeler’s James gets to duet a reprise of “Violets And Silverbells” opposite stage (and real-life) wife Huber, and it is gorgeous indeed. Caldretti is marvelous as always, soloing a delightful “Over The Hill” and duetting a folksy “We Make A Beautiful Pair” opposite stage sister-in-law Huber and a sweet “Violets And Silverbells” opposite stage boyfriend Ford, splendid as always. Lewis’s gorgeous eleventh hour solo of “The Only Home I Know” is a breathtakingly beautiful performance by a handsome young up-and-comer.

As for the cast’s youngest members, both Gonzales and Etnyer are crowd-pleasing charmers, and never more so than when joining voices in my favorite Shenandoah ditty “Why Am I Me?”, which has the youngest Anderson boy comparing lives with a slave exactly his own age. The role of Gabriel gives eleven-year-old Etnyre one of the best children’s roles of this or any year, and he is a dazzler in it, returning to duet “Freedom” opposite Broadway vet and Southland treasure Huber. Only Gonzales’s playing with his overlong forelock proves a distraction, but one easily solved.

Musical director Alby Potts conducts an onstage four-piece orchestra* that gives a nicely apt folk-band sound to what on Broadway were full-sized orchestrations. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg costumes each cast member in realistic Civil War era garb, including plenty of blue and gray uniforms. The uncredited lighting design complements songs and performances in establishing just the right mood for each scene.

Carol Kline and Patty Paul are production coordinators. Art Brickman is stage manager and Courtney Geraldez and Tara Sitser are assistant stage managers. Jessica Olson is assistant costume designer.

MTG’s upcoming season promises to be every bit as exciting as the one which Shenandoah brings to a close, opening in September with Death Takes A Holiday, followed by Call Me Madam, Chess, A Catered Affair, and Girl Crazy. In the meantime, audiences have one more chance to catch MTG’s marvelous season closer and Gordon Goodman’s award-worthy star turn, one which gives predecessors Stewart and Cullum more than a run for their money.

–Steven Stanley
June 11, 2012

The Alex Theatre, Glendale

Photos: Daniel G. Lam

*Potts on piano, Brian Boyce on drums and percussion, Jean Sudsbury on violin, and Dave Reynolds on guitar and banjo.

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