Grand and Glorious CHAMBERLAIN Stirs the Heart
by Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
Maine State Music Theatre's second production of the season, a revival of the Knapp-Alper 1996 musical Chamberlain A Civil War Romance, proves to be a grand and glorious theatrical experience, an endeavor of epic proportions that delivers spectacle, emotion, and inspiration in equal measure.
Spanning more than fifty years in the life of Brunswick's legendary Civil War hero, Maine governor, and Bowdoin college president, Joshua L. Chamberlain, and focusing on his relationship with his passionate, mercurial wife, Fannie Adams, the musical, in this brilliantly executed new production, directed and choreographed by Marc Robin, offers both epic sweep and touching intimacy. Large in musical and dramatic scale, lavish in production values, and cast with a first rate ensemble of singing-actors, Chamberlain dazzles the ear and eye and warms the heart.
Originally commissioned by MSMT's then-artistic director, Charles Abbott, Chamberlain - like other shows such as LES MISERABLES, Camelot, or Man of LaMancha - must create a coherent narrative from sprawling historical events and larger-than-life characters. Lyricist/ book writer, Sarah Knapp succeeds admirably at this tricky task, weaving a tale of parallel, frequently conflicting loves - that of Chamberlain for duty and destiny pitted against his devotion to his wife Fannie. She gracefully intersperses private moments with panoramic events, always approaching the latter (except in the rousing Act I finale at the Battle of Little Round Top) from the private perspective of her protagonists. Relying on the letters of Joshua and Fannie, Chamberlain's own rousing rhetoric, and the words of poets like Shakespeare and the Brownings, Knapp fashions unabashedly romantic and inspiring lyrics that easily translate into song. In this version, revised for the current revival, she keeps the dramatic arc taut and filled with palpable tension, while humanizing her characters with tender wit and vulnerability.
Steven M. Alper's music rises to the dramatic challenge, finding a language that blends the 19th century vernacular of religious and patriotic hymns and parlor tunes with the show-stopping expansiveness of the legitimate Broadway style. His musical idiom is an organic outgrowth not only of the material and the period, but also of the individual characters' psyches and milieus, and he balances big solos with complex ensemble pieces. Speech seamlessly segues into song, and dialogue is often stirringly underscored. The orchestrations by Larry Hochman, Douglas Besterman, and Bruce Coughlin combine subtlety and sweep, and add luxuriant texture to the overall canvas. The six pit musicians under the direction of Ray Fellman play passionately and sensitively, creating the impression of a much larger orchestra.
...Chamberlain is about ideals that are worth living and dying for, just as it is about flawed human beings, who rise to occasions thrust upon them by life and history.
...Performed, as it is in this revival, in Chamberlain's own state and hometown, naturally enhances the emotional impact of the performance. But Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance speaks to themes more universal than Maine-centric ones. MSMT's new production makes an eloquent case for bringing this contemporary musical to a wider audience. Quite simply, this show offers the kind of inspiration that is sometimes rare in modern musicals. It demands of its audience and its interpreters a commitment and passion worthy of its hero....This magnificent Chamberlain represents a new high in artistic vision and accomplishment