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A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: A uniquely Portland musical experience

November 11, 2016

This "piano harp" was custom made for this production by artists at Art Design Portland (ADX).

Artists Rep is taking a production that has been seen many times in theatres across the country and putting a uniquely Portland spin on it. With special permission from playwright Paula Vogel, the company commissioned eight of Portland’s most-celebrated musicians to create new arrangements of the play’s original score by Broadway composer Daryl Waters. The hope of the huge cast and creative team behind the project is that these new takes on Civil War era songs and carols will reflect the many hues of Portland’s musical landscape.

“A beautiful thing about asking this set of composers to take a new look at the music in the show is that through their interpretations and perspectives they’ve created a palpable feeling of timeliness and forward momentum,” said Director Paul Angelo.

Covering the gamut of styles and genres, the local composers include Darrell Grant (Jazz), Holcombe Waller (Folk), Mark and LaRhonda Steele (Blues), Okaidja Afroso  (Ghanaian), Edna Vázquez (Latin), James Beaton (Contemporary) and Brian Adrian Koch (Folk/Rock).  These carefully selected musicians, led by Music Director Andrew Bray over the past six months, have re-arranged Waters’ original score of holiday classics, hymns, marches and spirituals.

Familiar songs titles include: What Child is This? (arr. Waller), The Yellow Rose of Texas (arr. Vázquez), Balm in Gilead (arr. Steele), Children Go Where I Send Thee (arr. Afroso), I’m A-Gone Away to Shiloh (arr. Koch), God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (arr. Beaton), Follow The Drinking Gourd (arr. Grant).

There is no pit orchestra but instead the music – along with all the sound effects – is created entirely by the actors.

“Matching the voices and musical talents of this cast to what the 24 pieces of music call for has been a joy, and a challenging puzzle,” said Music Director Andrew Bray. “For me, it is like being a chef. We have all the ingredients to make an exquisite feast, filled with boldness and nuance alike, and the delight comes when those elements are explored and mixed together to create something spectacular.”

The company hopes that how the music was developed, and how the actors bring it to life, creates a dialogue between the United States’ troubling past and our still-struggling present.

"Part of the appeal of this play is the powerful reverberation between the historical moment of 1865 and our own,” said Luan Schooler, Director of Dramaturgy and New Play Development. “We want to tell this Civil War story from a distinctly ‘PDX 2016’ point of view, and that choice requires resetting these familiar songs into Portland’s extraordinary musical voice. Happily, Paula Vogel was supportive of our approach.  She recently heard one of the new arrangements and called it ‘thrilling’ – which was, of course, thrilling to us!”

On December 6, the theatre is offering an intimate evening of music and storytelling with Music in the Making: The Sounds & Sights of A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS. Hosted by Susannah Mars, who plays Mary Todd Lincoln in the production, these musicians and other contributors to this production will perform on the set of A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS and talk about their experience creating the music for the show. More info on that event here.

Darrell Grant | Internationally recognized Jazz pianist, composer and educator; Professor of Music at PSU
Holcombe Waller | Folk and pop singer, composer and performing artist
Mark and LaRhonda Steele |Blues, Jazz and Gospel artists
Okaidja Afroso |Ghanaian recording artist
Edna Vázquez | Latin American singer-songwriter
James Beaton | Everclear/Storm Large & The Balls, Crazy Enough & Lizzie at Portland Center Stage
Brian Adrian Koch | founder and drummer, Blitzen Trapper

 By Nicole Lane, Director of Communications & Community Engagement

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