Look Away, Look Away: The Roasting of 'Atlanta'

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

soldiers.jpg In American history, there are few events as grim as the burning of Atlanta in the winter of 1864. Before laying siege to the city, General William Tecumseh Sherman told its citizens, "You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it." Mary Chestnut, an Atlantan whose diary survived the devastation, wrote in the aftermath, "Darkest of all Decembers ever has my life known, Sitting here by the embers, stunned, helpless, alone."

These feelings of Mary Chestnut may seem familiar to anyone in Los Angeles who has experienced the new Civil War musical, titled Atlanta, which is receiving its World Premiere at the Geffen this winter. While I have read no reports of anyone in the audience actually dying at the hand of this crude theatrical bomb; on the night I attended there were indeed casualties.

ken_barnett.jpg After intermission, the entire row seated right behind me was gone. Looking around the theater, it seemed like half the audience had left the building. At least General Sherman -- unlike the creators of this show -- had the compassion to warn those fleeing Atlanta about the carnage that waited if they stuck around. By the end of the show, I felt like a Southern survivor, sitting by the embers of this failed production, stunned, helpless and alone.

Okay, enough hyperbole. Atlanta, like war, is cruelty; but at least we can define it. Written by Nashville songwriter Marcus Hummon, Atlanta: The Musical is an unholy confederation of Civil War clichés, remedial Shakespeare trivia and country music.

john_fleck.jpg The main character in Atlanta is Paul, a Union soldier who puts on a gray coat of a fallen infantryman and assumes the identity of a Southerner in order to survive after being wounded in battle. He falls in with a band of Rebels led by Colonel Medraut, the only Confederate leader more familiar with the works of William Shakespeare than his military field guide. Played by John Fleck, with the sort of flamboyant hamminess, that makes over-the-top performances by say Gary Oldman or Al Pacino seem subtle, Medraut is so diabolical that he even keeps his own slaves (named Puck, Cleo and yes, Hamlet) who he forces to perform bits of the Bard on the battlefield.

natl_park_visitors_cntr.jpg The song "Somethin's Fishy in Denmark" pretty much sums up Atlanta: a mishmash of Shakespeare set to Dixie. While that number is just bad, many of Marcus Hummon's songs wouldn't necessarily make you turn the dial if you heard them on the radio; but they don't evoke The Civil War in any meaningful way—nor do they effectively move the story along. Worse than the music though is the script by television actor Adrian Pasdar (who plays Nathan Petrelli on NBC's Heroes and also is married to one of the Dixie Chicks). I can assure you, as a veteran of a number of trips of Civil War sites, you will find more nuanced storytelling and better dialogue at any Civil War reenactment (or National Park Service visitor center slide show) than you will on stage during Atlanta.

Atlanta marks the first World Premiere musical in the Geffen's history. It going down in flames is bad for the company and for the future of locally produced musicals. In the 1860's, the city of Atlanta was able to rebuild in a matter of years, let's hope something better emerges from the ashes of this Atlanta, which continues to burn at the Geffen Playhouse through January 13.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.