by Terrance Mc Arthur
“Shenandoah, I long to see you, A-a-way, you rolling river…”
Enjoy the Junior Company rendition of that classic song in the pre-show, because the song isn’t part of the musical Shenandoah, based on the 1965 Jimmy Stewart movie, now being staged at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre through November 8.
Mark Norwood is craggy and cranky as Charlie Anderson, a non-slave-owning Virginia widower determined to keep his six sons out of the Civil War, a war that comes to his family. He talks and sings to his wife’s grave, puts ministers and war profiteers in their places with sharp wit and clever reasoning, and goes on a quest of Odysseian proportions when his youngest son is mistaken for a Rebel by Union troops.
The 1974 musical has songs by Peter Udell and Gary Geld, the team responsible for pop tunes like “Sealed With a Kiss” (Brian Hyland) and Hurting Each Other (The Carpenters). The script is by Udell, Phillip Rose, and James Lee Barrett (the 1965 screenwriter). The best-known songs from the score were “Next to Lovin’ (I Like Fightin’)” and “Freedom Is a State of Mind,” which I still remember from the Tony Awards show and the Macy’s Parade preshow, which have been my annual tastes of Broadway for many years.
Norwood stomps, bellows, punches, destroys, and lullabys his way through the show, creating a portrait of a conflicted man who doesn’t want others to do his work for him, yet is troubled by the things he does and their effect on others. Kindle Cowger shows depth as Jennie, the only Anderson daughter, who quests for her husband along with the search for her missing brother.
Shawn Williams has grown from a Junior Company fixture to a Good Company go-to performer. He gets some opportunities for tenderness as a married brother awaiting the birth of his first child, sharing songtime with Tara Falge, who works with Jeramial Muhammed on “Freedom is a State of Mind,” as she explains the possibilities of the future to the newly-freed slave, Gabriel. Lance Casper earns respect as an initially-buffoonish minister who tries to deal with his faith and the war, perhaps the strongest performance I’ve ever seen from him.
Jonathan Wheeler has to endure a father-in-law’s lecture from Charlie that would scare off most young men, but he marries Jennie, anyway. Daniel Sutherland, recently Mr. Bumble in Oliver!, is massive and sinister in a horrifying portrayal of the worst in humanity. Connor Pofahl portrays Robert Anderson, known as Boy, the naïve, youngest son, who learns the truth about playing soldier, with a gentle innocence.
Laurie Pessano directed and choreographed with a loving eye and a sure pace. For a 40-year-old based on a 50-year-old movie, many themes strike modern chords of anti-war sentiment, though some attitudes seem out of step with today’s society. It lasted 1,050 performances on Broadway. Today, however, when the Confederate soldiers sing, “Wave the flag of Dixie,” the Stars and Bars flag is not seen in their hands or on their uniforms.
It’s big, and brash, and sentimental, and that’s a good thing.
In the pre-show, the Junior Company saluted the Shenandoah River and other bodies of water, and a diminutive girl known as “Q. T.” leads a raucous, wild, “rough” performance of a song that should get you gasping with laughter when you realize what song it is. There is also the aforementioned “Shenandoah,” performed as a searing a capella duet.
Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre is at 1226 N Wishon Ave. For more information, call (559) 266-9494 or go to gcplayers.com.
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