Many of us have been curious to see just what Flat Rock Playhouse would look like under the regime of new Artistic Director Vincent Marini. If the current offering there is any indication, it looks very, very good. For the Glory is in every respect a spectacular piece of entertainment: The music and the singing are near flawless, the staging runs like a well-oiled machine, the set is stunning, and the lights contribute beautifully to the whole effect. In short, it’s a great show — in the time-honored American sense of the word — and the kind you’d expect to see in one of the bigger Broadway houses. If you thought Flat Rock held itself to high professional standards before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
One of the most important changes Marini, who directs For the Glory, has made at Flat Rock is to reduce the number of shows in the season so that he can put more resources into the shows he does. (To get a richer sense of the changes underway at Flat Rock, take a look at Steve Samuels’s story in the June 2 Xpress, “Flat Rock Rising.”) In For the Glory, the gamble pays off. The show is lavish in a way one rarely sees here, both in terms of production values and personnel. The cast has what sports writers call “depth”; in his program note, Marini describes them as “hand picked.” Moreover, there are a lot of them — something near forty people, counting the musicians.
But despite the subtitle (“The Civil War Musical”), For the Glory is no more a musical than it is a computer game. For one thing, there is no story, unless you count the contextual story of the American Civil War, and the only really identifiable characters are the “Northern Captain” and the “Southern Captain,” played with gusto by Michael Lanning and Mike Eldred respectively. The two men complement each other well, and each character is brought out to some extent by the foil of the other. But who are they? We never find out.
Naturally there is also a chorus of soldiers for each of the captains, as well as a third (and — somewhat creepily — segregated) chorus of slaves. But while one or another voice will come forward from time to time, these characters too remain for the most part undeveloped. They are musical snapshots, if you will. Without a doubt, some of them quite arresting: Bryonha Parham gives a powerful and wrenching performance in Act 1, and in Act 2, she is answered by Troy Scarborough, who delights the audience with his vocal exuberance, physical precision, and charm.
The words we hear in the songs are largely excerpted from actual writings of the time, ranging from private letters, to Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation,” to a speech by Frederick Douglass. Many of these are remarkable for their eloquence; and the old-fashioned turns of phrase are not without a certain pathos.
The music, though, is a mélange of contemporary, main-stream American pop and gospel. Given the rich catalogue of banjo and fiddle tunes from the Civil War and earlier, this is a bit disappointing; but the show’s original creators (Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy — all with Broadway credentials) did not intend a musical documentary about the actual Civil War. Evidently what they intended was something more universal, something about people struggling to maintain or achieve their dignity, to realize an ideal, or to defend a way of life — however misguided or morally dubious those struggles may seem in hindsight.
As if there weren’t enough to admire in the sheer spectacle of the show, it’s admirable too for its ability to stir the emotions without “coming down” in praise, blame, or judgment. This even-handedness is a remarkable achievement, given the degree to which the issues raised by the Civil War still perturb — if not to say plague — American society.
For the Glory: book and lyrics by Frank Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy; music by Frank Wildhorn. Director: Vincent Marini. Choreographer: Amy Elizabeth Jones. Musical Director: Galen Butler. Technical Director: Bruce R. Bailey. Scenic Designer: Dennis C. Maulden. Lighting Designer: Stephen Terry. Sound Designer: Nick Kourtides. Costume Designer: Janine McCabe. Properties Master: Paul Feraldi. Vocal Director, Casting Director, Artistic Consultant: Dave Clemmons. Production Stage Manager: Bill Muñoz. Musicians: Bill Altman (guitar), Paul Babelay (drums), Galen Butler (piano), Ralph Congdon (violin), Grant Cuthbertson (bass), Ryan Guerra (guitar), Will Moss (keyboard). Starring: Michael Lanning, Mike Eldred, David Jennings, Dustin Brayley, Gina Milo, Linda Edwards, Ryan Appleby, Erik J. Christensen, Ryan Thomas Dunn, Ben Hope, Charlie Johnson, Matthew John Kacergis, Clark Kincade, Aaron LaVigne, Mark Ludden, Regan McLellan, Matthew Meigs, Blake Rogers, James Wells, Jyreika Guest, Angela Johnson, Terrence Johnson, Kellee Knighton-Hough, Ivory McKay, Bryonha Parham, Troy Scarborough, Miriam Cumins, Abigail Cash, and Clark MacDonald. Show runs through July 4. Performances: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 2 p.m. (except Fridays) and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.. Tickets $34. 828-693-0731.