Reunion by Jack Kyrieleison. Directed by Ron Holgate.
How To Make a Musical Minus a Leading Man
Lydia Nightingale and David Girard as Hometown Girl and The Soldier
Reunion is a play about the brief Presidential career of Abraham Lincoln. It covers the period of his life from his announcement of his candidacy to his funeral, a few short years later. The time span, of course, includes the entirety of the American Civil War, a tumultuous time, a period of enormous changes in American life and in the lives of Americans of color and those who would control, or own, them. We donít think of this, necessarily, as a time of terrific amusements or entertainments, but author Kyrieleison and his collaborator Holgate, have decided to correct that impression on stage in Albany at NYSTI. Theyíve done one perfect job!
With a cast of 26 people, the leading man in the story, Lincoln, and his wife, Mary Todd, never appear on stage. They are talked about: he as The Tycoon and she as something quite different. Sometimes he is represented by an elegant chair. The chair is sufficient. This is because the book of this "musical" has taken as its protagonists two men from different backgrounds, a young soldier and a freedman, a black of the North, who wants to join his fellow comrades in arms to defend the Union, return the balance, free his family in the Southern states. He and his compatriot are interested in Re-Union. Their tales of troubles are the core of this show.
The Soldier, never named, is played brilliantly on all levels by NYSTI company member David Girard. Acting, singing, making love and making memories, he is a stunner. His powerful moments with the girl of his heart, especially in their second act duet "Weeping Sad and Lonely," are moments that stay with you for a long, long time. As the Hometown Girl of his dreams, Lydia Nightingale, is almost his equal. They pair beautifully.
The freedman, named Hannibal Drumwright, is sung and acted, in that order, by Ivan Thomas. In his case the singing far outweighs the acting, but his oratory style makes an impression at times. His sincerity in declamation is acceptable here because, even though he has an actual name unlike his white counterpart The Soldier, he is voicing the thoughts of a race of people brought low by political preferences. As free men they want to support their country, fight for their rights and the rights of their enslaved brethren, but they are not allowed to participate in the war. They are still slaves, just not an unpaid workforce. It isnít until the end of Act One, when Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation that he can step forward and sing with joy about taking his place among his fellowmen. And sing he does, in the rousing "Heavín Bound Soldier." Itís a truly marvelous thing to see and hear.
As his wife Cassie, and a few other roles, Laiona Michelle is a better actor and a singer of no little ability. She takes flight several times on the musical strains and even though she contemporizes Stephen Fosterís "Home Sweet Home" a bit too much, avoiding melody where she can, she delivers a dynamite performance, moving and sweet where needed.
Anny de Gange, a soprano of power, regularly delivers moving and emotional renditions of speeches and songs. As Lincolnís secretary, and his voice, Gary Lynch is something to see and hear. He holds the center of the show, the core of the play, in his role. His appearances are always dynamic, always important. He carves out the war for us and he presents the human story of life in and around the White House. He is as close to Lincoln as we are allowed to get, and he gets us pretty close. A tall, dramatic and beautiful man, Lynch feels like a person devoted to his mentor in this role. Had Lincolnís secretary actually been Lynch, U.S. Grant would have had a hard time getting to be President.
Joel Aroeste is an excellent Harry Hawk, our interlocutor. David Bunce as General McClellan is not strong enough a singer, or hard enough an actor to make his character believably unpleasant or even vitally interesting. Brandon Jones is fun and talented playing the Music Hall man, aided and abetted by the excellent John Romeo and John McGuire.
There are 27 songs in this show and if thatís not a musical I donít know what is. All of them are songs of the period: some you will know, some you will wish to know better, hear again. In the development of this play the cast has grown from six and, presumably, the score has grown with it. There have been other productions in the past and I hope there will be more in the future. This is a piece that never flags or loses interest. It should have a long, professional and non-professional life ahead.
Holgate and his team of designers including lighting designer John McLain, costume designer Karen Kammer and set designer Garret E. Wilson have whipped up a beautiful production that feels right from beginning to end. Holgate manages some fascinating juxtapositions and pictures on the large stage at NYSTI and the band, led by Albin Konopka lends ebullient and sensitive support to the proceedings using Michael OíFlahertyís excellent arrangements.
For a view of the internal battles and balance in the North during the Civil War, make certain to see Reunion. It is just what it claims to be: a musical epic in miniature, a reunion of the forces that make theater all that it can be.
Laiona Michelle and Ivan Thomas as Cassie and Hanibal Drumwright
Anny De Gange, Joel Aroeste and Gary Lynch as The Abolitionist, Hawk, and The Secretary
NYSTI is on the campus of Russell Sage College in Troy New York. The show only runs through May 19. For information and tickets call 518-274-3256.