Protecting the peace on the 50-yard line of a war?
That’s the precarious scenario tackled in "Shenandoah."
"I don’t think it’s anti-war and I don’t think it’s pro-war — it’s the struggle of knowing whether it’s right or wrong," says Doug Baker, who stars as Charlie Anderson in the Civil War-set musical that positions a family and its strong-willed father between Union and Confederate forces in a production charging into a three-weekend run tonight at the College of Southern Nevada’s Nicholas J. Horn Theatre.
"I’m a Vietnam War veteran, so it’s extremely important to me and also timely because of the Iraqi war. There are all these parallels between that time period and this one and the real struggle we have as a society about supporting or not supporting the war."
Based on the 1965 film, the 1975 musical memorably starred Tony-winner John Cullum ("Northern Exposure") — defiantly bellowing "This land here is Anderson land!" — as the widower in Northwest Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, his farmhouse caught in the flow of the fighting in the war between the states. But the patriarch is determined to shield his six sons, one daughter and the land he loves from the bloodshed of battle.
Declares Charlie: "I’m not about to go out and hunt strangers down to kill ’em. And that’s what war is!"
The powerful prologue, set to the opening song "Raise the Flag of Dixie," frames the conflict as soldiers from North and South each proclaim their resolve to triumph, separated by Charlie, visiting his wife’s grave.
"When you get too political, you lose half your audience, because they’re not going to agree with you on everything," says director Sarah Norris about guiding a show that initially focuses on the family’s pacifism, commitment to neutrality and keeping clear of the destruction raining down around them. But after fending off Confederate attempts to conscript the Anderson boys and the eventual capture of the youngest son by Union soldiers, Charlie can no longer veer away from violence.
"What I hope this production accomplishes is that people see both sides of it and it can spark a dialogue after the show," Norris says. "This is a great example of going to see theater to challenge you, making you think and having an intelligent conversation about it. But we’re not going to try to beat it over anyone’s head, just open eyes to different views."
Looming over the story is the spirit of Charlie’s late wife, Martha, to whom Charlie speaks and pledges that "our house is going to stand … and our family … our blood is going to stay together." She is, even in death, his confidante.
"She’s always there," Baker says. "When he does something, he looks and talks to her. Even though she’s not a character, she’s still a character in the show."
Among the songs in the stirring score, the infectiously bouncy "Freedom" may be most familiar to musical-theater fans: "Freedom ain’t a state like Maine or Virginia; freedom ain’t across some county line; freedom is a flame that burns within ya; freedom’s in the state … of mind."
Other tunes include such emotional standouts as "Meditation" — a piece that’s part song, part monologue delivered at Martha’s grave as Charlie explains how tough it is to remain out of the middle of the madness — and the nearly operatic "I’ve Heard It All Before," deriding the rationales of war.
"This is a very tough score to sing," Baker says. "It was written for John Cullum, originally. You’ve got to sing from the bottom of your toes, you really have to pull it up. There are a couple of songs where when you reach the end of them, you really don’t have much left, if you do them right. It’s not difficult notewise, it’s support and power and interpretation."
Among "Shenandoah’s" supporting characters is Gabriel, a slave child and pal of the youngest Anderson boy. In one funny yet telling exchange, Gabriel explains that he’s never been to church because he’s not welcome, to which the boy responds that he’d happily trade places with him.
"I don’t think you’d be much good at bein’ a slave," Gabriel says. "It takes practice."
Though not timed to the presidential election, it’s nonetheless intriguing that the run of "Shenandoah," with its Civil War and slavery components, extends beyond Election Day on Nov. 4, when the United States could be buzzing about a black president-elect.
"It’s part of why we picked it," Baker says. "We felt it was timely in more ways than one."
But at its heart, "Shenandoah" is a timeless musical treatise on war then, war now, war forever.
As Charlie observes: "Like all wars, the undertakers are winning it."
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at email@example.com or 702-383-0256.PREVIEW what: "Shenandoah" when: 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday (additional performances through Nov. 9) where: Nicholas J. Horn Theatre, College of Southern Nevada, 3200 E. Cheyenne Ave. tickets: $10-$12.50 (651-5483)