Wednesday, February 17, 2021

474. SHENANDOAH. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975.

John Cullum, David Russell, Joseph Shapiro, Donna Theodore, Joel Higgins, Ted Agress, Penelope Milford, Gordon Halliday.
[Musical/Family/Period/War] B: James Lee Barrett, Peter Udell, and Philip Rose; M: Gary Geld; LY: Peter Udell; SC: James Lee Barrett’s screenplay, Shenandoah; D: Philip Rose; CH: Robert Tucker; S: C. Murawski; C: Pearl Somner, Winn Morton; L: Thomas Skelton; P: Philip Rose, Gloria and Louis K. Sher; T: Alvin Theatre; 1/7/75-8/7/77 (1,050)

John Cullum, Donna Theodore.

Screenwriter James Lee Barrett participated in the crafting of the book for this hit musical version of his eponymous 1965 James Stewart film. First staged at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House, Shenandoah struck most New York critics as an old-fashioned musical (Howard Kissell called it “simpleminded” and Martin Gottfried thought it “corny”), a kind of ersatz Rodgers and Hammerstein, which did not, however, hinder it from a long run.

John Cullum, Penelope Milford.

Set at the time of the Civil War, it follows the adventures of pacifist Virginia farmer Charlie Anderson (John Cullum in a career-defining performance) and his family, living in the Shenandoah Valley. Charlie, opposed to allowing his six sons to get involved in the conflict, suddenly finds himself enmeshed in it when his youngest, Robert (Joseph Shapiro), is kidnapped by Union soldiers. Leaving his daughter, Jenny (Penelope Milford), eldest son, James (Joel Higgins), and James's wife, Anne (Donna Theodore), on the homestead, he and his other sons go off in search of the missing child, wreaking havoc on Union trains wherever they go. Finally, after Anne, James, and another son, Jacob (Ted Agress), have been slain, the defeated Charlie comes home and, with his remaining brood, goes to church. There, the ragged little Robert comes limping in as the congregation sings a rousing hymn.

This sentimental, but certainly moving, tale was told in episodic scenes incorporating music ranging “from hymns to lullabies to country tunes to love songs to elegiac meditations,” wrote Jack Kroll. It was danced in a pre-Agnes DeMille style of thumbs tucked in overalls with lots of vigorous knee and thigh-slapping and hollering. Several critics approved the moral fervor of the show and its attempted return to an American musical method exemplified by classics such as Oklahoma!, but few were wholeheartedly supportive of it.

John Cullum and company.

Kroll argued that it was not simply a schmaltzy show, but a decent stab at making a musical out of “simple, clear, strong blocks of human feeling.” Its major flaw, he felt, was an intellectual frailty. Clive Barnes also considered it relatively successful: “it is nice to have a show around that not only dares to be tuneful but is even willing to throw in a morsel of moral uplift.” “In spite of yourself you get a catch in the throat,” added Edwin Wilson. Although T.E. Kalem admitted that it was “all sentimentally endearing,” he pointed out that “it marks one giant step backward for the American musical.” “It’s all so cornshuckingly, fingerlickingly, hornswogglingly folksy,” snapped John Simon, “that any stomach unturned by it can be sold as show leather.”

Choice targets were what Gottfried dubbed the “crude book,” or what Douglas Watt labeled the “dumb story,” not to mention the “insipid” songs. Barnes noted that the film, because of its expanded scope, told the story more potently, an advantage not challenged by the undistinguished staging. Howard Kissel claimed that the design gave the show the air of “a high-school pageant.”

Songs included “Raise the Flag of Dixie,” “I’ve Heard It All Before,” “Pass the Cross to Me,” “Next to Lovin’ I Like Fightin’,” “Over the Hill,” “Meditation” “Violets and Silverbells,” “Papa’s Gonna Make It Alright,” and “The Only Home I Know,” among others.

There was little negative response to the performances. As Charlie, John Cullum came into his own as a Broadway musical leading man. Kroll thought he had “probably the best singing voice on the American stage.” Barnes said he “can even make partially convincing some maudlin conversations with the grave of his wife, and the warmth, tone and characterization of his voice are exemplary.” Simon, however, thought “his acting is all Broadway commonplaces.”

Shenandoah was a relatively rare example of hit musical that managed to overcome tepid reviews to run for over 1,000 performances. It also garnered much official recognition, gaining Tony nominations for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Supporting Actress (Donna Theodore), and Best Choreography. Cullum took home the Tony for Best Actor, Musical, as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award for Distinguished Performance. Chip Ford, who played Gabriel, an African-American child, received an Outer Critics Circle Award for Notable Performance by a Young Player. And Donna Theodore won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical, the first person to receive this recognition, as previous Drama Desk Awards did not differentiate between the sexes or whether a performance was in a play or musical.