Pitting plays against movies probably shouldn’t be allowed—they are different art forms, different viewing experiences, forget it. It’s hard not to compare, though, if you have particular feelings for either the play version or the movie version of a story.
I saw Shenandoah the movie when it first came out and remembered it for a long time, then forgot it completely, until my memories were bestirred by a recent viewing of Shenandoah, the musical/play, put forth handsomely by the Missoula Children’s Theater. (Sorry, but this archaic language just starts creeping in when Charlie Anderson, the story’s stalwart, integrity-laden, aphorism-prone father is brought to mind.)
In the movie, Anderson, a Civil-War era slave-free Virginia farmer and head of a large, motherless brood, was played by Jimmy Stewart. The motherless brood was played by seven actors nobody remembers. In the MCT play the six boys of the brood are played as if they were born to do it by Keith Rieger (Jacob), Shane Clouse (James), Derek Hanson (John), Michael Lowney (Henry) and Tommy Snyder (Robert or “the Boy”). Their sister—part Annie Oakley, part Scarlett O’Hara—is played with notable vim and an acceptable contemporary spin (she wears pants around the farm) by Karen Garfein. Charlie Anderson is played by an imported actor, Kenneth J. Seigh.
Seigh is impressive, but he is not Jimmy Stewart. This is not his fault, and to his credit he doesn’t try to be fuzzy and drawling, skinny and shy. But if you aren’t going to be Jimmy Stewart, then you have to be someone else and, unfortunately, some of the lines this father has to say can make him seen rather pompous, such as when he repeatedly makes Sam the suitor (played by the very watchable Robert Harsch) sit down because Charlie Anderson “never talks to a man who is looking down on him.”
This is one of the sillier things Charlie is made to say. He has other lines, though, that are worthy of the engraving implied, such as, “war is open season on strangers.” That’s the opinion this father holds on the war between the states and it’s why he won’t let the Confederate Army have his sons.
Whether Charlie comes across as righteous or simply right is important to me because some of the lines from the movie, that are also in the play, have stuck with me nigh unto middle age. It’s embarrassing to confess those that standout (shouldn’t more profound counselings be trailing one through the years?) but I remember Jimmy Stewart advising Sam about his relationship with Jenny by saying, “Yes, I know you love her, but do you like her?” This struck me, at age 11, as deeply profound, and a very good question for Sam, indeed.
Shenandoah the movie came out when the Vietnam war was in full swing, and I know its simple anti-war sentiments appealed to me then. The play version, now, feels different. Or I should say the musical version. Picture a musical version of the Vietnam war ... I was about to go on with that statement, but I remember now that such a work does exist. Some critics would say that Miss Saigon doesn’t quite work, either. But it did have a big Huey helicopter, or what seemed to be one, lowered directly onto the stage. Shenandoah, in comparison, is very traditional as a musical. “Jacob and James,” rhymes with “April rains.” On the beat. Hijinks-loving ruffian brothers leap frog over each other and dance through their chores.
Shenandoah is to the Civil War what Paint Your Wagon is to the settling of the American West. What Oklahoma is to homesteading. What Fiddler on the Roof is to the Jewish diaspora. And that is all okay, but old-fashioned. The old familiars we love for their familiarity. The same embracing is not automatic for a relative unknown.
The movie version of Shenandoah, needless to say, was not a musical. (If Jimmy Stewart had had to sing even one of the songs Kenneth Seigh performs with resounding talent, he, Stewart, would have fallen off the set in a swoon.)
I guess my own preference in war tales of either stage or screen is that they be unaccompanied by song and dance. An exception to this would be 1940s Radio Hour, which MCT also has performed in recent years. There the singing and the dancing is not accompaniment to a tragic story. As in the much darker—but, in some ways, similar—Cabaret, it is the poignant, tragic point.
Shenandoah runs at the Missoula Children’s Theatre Thursday, May 4 through Sunday, May 7. Showtimes Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets $11 to $18. Call 728-PLAY.