The Civil War

Songwriter Frank Wildhorn says he wrote his latest work, The Civil War, for his 14-year-old son. “He was studying the war in school, and I never thought the textbooks he was reading were inspiring the kind of passion they should,” he says–a passion very much in evidence lately. Ironically, this traveling version of Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd, and Jack Murphy’s musical opened its tour in Charleston, South Carolina, the week that controversy began to rage over whether to fly a Confederate flag over the state capitol, strengthening Wildhorn’s commitment to this project despite its failure on Broadway last spring. Composer of the New York hits Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel, Wildhorn set out to do something different with The Civil War: he wanted it to be not a Les Miz-style pop opera with battle scenes and a souped-up romance but a theatrical song cycle that, he says, would honor “those who lived and died for the causes they believed in.” The show began life as a concept album featuring the likes of Patti LaBelle, Travis Tritt, and Hootie & the Blowfish–but when it was retooled for the Big Apple, director Jerry Zaks jettisoned the simplicity of Wildhorn’s vision in favor of stage spectacle and dramatic cliches ill suited to the material. Now Wildhorn and a new director, Stephen Rayne, have returned to Wildhorn’s original vision of the work as a family-oriented concert for the theater: country singer Larry Gatlin and gospel wailer BeBe Winans front an onstage band and a large supporting cast. Gatlin’s clarion tenor and Winans’s raspy baritone are perfect for this passionate if sometimes bombastic score, which is steeped in the rousing idioms of both black and white gospel–just as the show’s pageantlike narrative is grounded in the black and white cultures whose conflicts and connections the Civil War epitomizes. Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, 312-902-1500. Opens Wednesday, February 23, 7:30 PM. Through February 27: Thursday, 2 and 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 3 and 7:30 PM. $35.50-$65.

–Albert Williams