Chicago Theater Review: OPUS 1861: THE CIVIL WAR IN SYMPHONY (City Lit Theater)

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by Tony Frankel on May 11, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


For the first forty-five minutes of City Lit’s OPUS 1861, a miracle occurred: I wept. Consistently. The simple but mighty idea is this: six actors dressed in simple army fatigues (T-shirts, camouflage pants) perform an amalgamation of Civil War songs with letters from U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The letters varied in nature, from a soldier’s description of the heartbreaking loss of a comrade, to the amazement that citizens of a war-torn land could be so generous and grateful. Four men and two women delivered the missives with stark simplicity, occasionally veering dangerously close towards a home-spun, shy, self-effacing, often unsophisticated manner. The emotional punch occurred when the harrowing and upsetting realities of all wars was brought to the fore with the wistful (and sometimes rousing) songs that came into being during the Civil war years: 1861 to 1865.

Tony Frankel's Chicago Review of 1861 at City LitIt’s amazing that, up until twenty-five minutes before show’s end, the military revue never felt like a jamboree. This was due in no small part to Gary Powell’s elegant and stirring arrangements, which, when performed by the astoundingly strong vocalists, served up an air of reflection and sorrow. Within the context of the show, devised and directed by Elizabeth Margolius, rowing songs, marching songs, “answer” songs, and Negro spirituals resounded with universal anguish that all war is hell. The terrific cast – who also played instruments – were Stephen Barker, Erin Renee Baumrucker, Ryan Gaffney, Varris Holmes, Elizabeth Morgan and Tyler Thompson.

Tony Frankel's Chicago Review of 1861 at City LitBut just as I was prepared to see to it that this show found a life in every theater in the country, it took a disquieting and jarring turn, culminating in the overwrought reading of a letter that sounded more like a GOP stump speech than a youngster’s bitterness about those who don’t support the troops back home; slow-motion salutes by the cast in the background didn’t help either. The elements that made the show, at first, so exiting and poignant – eternal themes of freedom and slavery and racism – disappeared, and we were left with a bumper sticker that screams, “Support Our Troops.” Sadly, my most unfailingly effective theatrical experience had become an army-recruitment commercial.

Tony Frankel's Chicago Review of 1861 at City LitI don’t remember the last time I felt this strong about a show’s potential to be one of the most moving experiences at the theater. Fortunately, the issue can be readily fixed: Margolius (along with co-deviser Terry McCabe), should veer from any viewpoint that only speaks to a modern, right-wing, political perspective, such as the aforementioned “yellow-ribbon” letter. The evening will resonate most if the creators stick to the parallels between the two wars: the everlasting themes of homesickness, a cause worth dying for, war’s senselessness, and, the most powerful for me, that youthful gung-ho attitude which is soon replaced with disenchantment – the same embitterment that I experienced leaving the theater, but for the wrong reasons.

photos by Anita Evans

Opus 1861: the Civil War in Symphony
City Lit Theater in Chicago (Chicago Theater)
scheduled to end on May 13
for tickets, call 773.293.3682 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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