Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln

For she so loved her trumpet that she sold it for a cup of Thai iced tea. And to give it a chance to be in show business. After years of being toted from school to school, teaching K-12ers about music, and years more of languishing in the gig bag in a closet, Jenna’s trumpet (with its valves still working, thank you very much) was rescued from obscurity and thrust into the hands of, well, Stephen Gregory Smith, on stage at Ford’s Theatre in Frank Wildhorn’s The Civil War. Because there’s no horn player in the orchestra, and the synthesized trumpet calls they were using made the entire cast cringe and cover their ears. Stephen plays, but his trumpet was lost 5 years ago when his house burned, so he put out a call and J answered. It’s like karmic payback for the bass amp and cabinet I got for free so they would have a good home.

So Stephen has a trumpet again, in recompense of which we were invited to the dress. Sadly, I can’t recommend the show. Most sadly because such a grouping of vocal talent I have never seen on one stage. Everyone in the cast was spectacular, solo and chorally. When they broke into an a capella section with the entire cast spread across the whole stage, and remained in perfect harmonic and rhythmic sync, I knew this was a special group of singers. The orchestra was also excellent. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the sound was a disaster.

Everyone sounded like they were singing from the single array of speakers hung above center stage. Even the people closer to me sounded that way, which means it’s more than just incorrectly tuned delays. There was a presence hump like that on a camel, leaving us with no bass (more the pity since the bass player rocked) and no high end for the consonants. Every single belt song (and many there were), male or female, consisted of an undifferentiated series of unidentifiable vowels. Despite the very expensive-looking (and hideously obtrusive) rock-n-roll style head mics, which ought to at least have helped the sound. Beyond that, I’m pretty sure something somewhere in the system was overloading; the harshness was more than I can put down entirely to bad EQ. This ain’t community theatre, folks. There’s no excuse for 1970’s quality sound.

But how about the lighting, you ask? Well shit, with several hundred fixed instruments and at least a dozen intelligent lights, you’d think it might be really nice. But then you might see the show and ask yourself “what’s the point of beautiful moody backlighting for a sad song if you then blast the person in the face with a white follow spot?” And, if you’re like me, you won’t have an answer. WTF, is it an Equity requirement or something that the lead singer must always be lit by a soft-focus follow spot? And we all have to work together to pretend that it doesn’t spill onto anyone or anything else on the stage? Feh.

And, new rule. Nobody is allowed to use projectors in the theatre ever again, with the single exception of the people who did Sunday in the Park with George up at Studio 54 last year. They got it right. Everyone else, including this one (Aaron Rhyne, apparently), get the PowerPoint disease when given a projector. Guess what guys, we’re here to see the actors, not your projections. So stop it with the motion during quiet solos! And remember, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid.

The show itself is a musical revue, which is fine, but don’t expect it to “bear witness to the struggles of the past, and actively connect those struggles to our lives in the present day,” as the director says. The only parts that were emotionally engaging for me were when they turned on the lights in Lincoln’s box and the cast turned toward it while a narrator read lines from various of Lincoln’s speeches. That worked, but can hardly be considered a stroke of directorial genius. I mean, you’re in Ford’s Theatre speaking lines from Lincoln. What else are you gonna do? And other than that, the show was not emotionally engaging. It was just a group of incredibly talented musicians (most of whom are very talented actors too) singing their hearts out and asses off. If the sound did them justice, it would be a very enjoyable evening.

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