For a fellow whose full-time job is the law, Lincoln attorney Jim Harris proved he’s pretty savvy at writing musicals, too.
On Friday, as part of the city’s bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, the Lied Center for Performing Arts hosted a stirring performance of Harris’ “Civil War Voices.”
Of course, it helped that Harris enlisted blue-chip composer Mark Hayes of Kansas City, Mo., to create memorable arrangements of some well-known pieces from the era, including goose-bump raising renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
He also recruited former Lincoln Community Playhouse artistic director Rob McKercher, now a Doane College theater professor, to direct.
McKercher, in addition to assembling a stellar cast led by Omaha vocalist Camille Metoyer Moten, effectively used multimedia to enhance Harris’ script. Meanwhile, music director Chuck Penington of Mannheim Steamroller fame coaxed a strong performance of Hayes’ arrangements from his small orchestra.
Where Harris succeeded with his musical was by putting faces (and voices) on the historic calamity. His script told the story of the war through actual writings of an Alabama plantation owner (Harris’ great-great-uncle), a Texas couple, a Union Army captain and a slave.
He provided a nice mix of humor and emotion. His only fault was weighting it too much to the Southern perspective. He needed text from a Northern family to round it out.
As for the performances, Moten as the former slave Elizabeth Keckley captivated the estimated 800 in attendance with her rich, powerful voice.
The musical’s most tender moments came from Seth Fox and Beth Asbjornson, who played the Texas couple. Fox particularly found his character, quickly gaining the audience’s sympathy for the pain he felt from being away from his family.
Even Jeremy Kendall, who is one of the city’s best actors, held his own on the music front.
There were some sound glitches. I’m not sure why the ensemble members weren’t miked. It was difficult to hear and understand them over the orchestra, which was located on stage rather than in a pit (where I would have put it).
But the leads came through loud and clear. It was their stories, after all, that we needed to hear.
Reach Jeff Korbelik at 473-7213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.