Music ReviewsMUST SEEPop/Rock/FolkREVIEWSREVIEWS BYTom Williams

Opus 1861 -The Civil War In Symphony

Devised by Elizabeth Margolius & Terry McCabe

Directed by Elizabeth Margolius

Music arranged & directed by Gary Powell

At City Lit Theatre, Chicago

Heartfelt harmonies and emotionally wrenching letters home from soldiers fuels terrific Civil War musical

Opus 1861: The Civil War In Symphony celebrate the 150th year anniversary  of the American Civil War through the songs of the Union Army.  This well-sung world premiere folk musical features 4 men and 2 women who blend their voices into beautiful harmonies to a collection of Civil War Era folk tunes, anthems, marches, religious and traditional songs rich in emotions and sentimentality.

Stephen Barker, Erin Renee Baumrucker, Ryan Gaffney, Varris Holmes, Elizabeth Morgan and Tyler Thompson make up the troop of Soldiers dressed in modern Army fatigue uniforms worn by contemporary soldiers in Afghanistan.  The show consists of 20 songs from the Civil War intermixed with the presentation of letters from 21st  Century soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

What makes this musical work so well are the talents of the six singer/musicians who play a guitar, banjo, clarinet, trumpet, ukeleles, pump organ, penny whistle and percussion in addition of the piano accompaniment by Gary Powell (who also did them musical arrangements).  We hear well know tunes like “Home Sweet Home.” ” Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” “John Brown’s Body” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The six singers look and move like soldiers as we hear each render emotionally wrought solos that morph into stirring harmonies. The tone of the peace depicts the loneliness, sadness, grief, and sense of honor that each contemporary soldier communicates through their letter home from the Middle East war zone.

opus 1861

The piece laments the sacrifice and honor of defending one’s country and its lets the emotionally wrenching Civil War speak to the personal commitment of individuals to defend their country. This is a non-political war musical. We hear the soldiers finding strength, solace, and sense of purpose in the songs of soldiers equally honor-bound to serve their country in war.

Songs like “When This Cruel War is Over (Weeping Sad and Lonely),” “Shule Agrah (Johnny’s Gone for a Soldier)” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” were particularly emotionally moving.  The Civil War songbook’s rich personal sensitivity toward the angst of war is deeply presented by this group of talented singers. The superb vocals and the honest presentation of the letters home added  power to the sacrifice of theses honorable patriots. Get to City Lit Theatre to experience the richness of  traditional American folk tunes sung marvelously by a troupe of new talents. This show will lift your spirits and give you new respect to the honorable soldiers who defend us when our nation calls.

Complete song list:


Johnny Fill up the Bowl

Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore

When This Cruel War Is Over (Weeping Sad and Lonely)

Was My Brother in the Battle?


Many Thousand Gone (No More Auction Block)

John Brown’s Body

Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?

Shule Agrah (Johnny’s Gone for a Soldier)

Just Before the Battle, Mother

Hard Times Come Again No More

Follow the Drinking Gourd

Give Us a Flag

The Battle Cry of Freedom

Battle Hymn of the Republic

The Vacant Chair

Home! Sweet Home!

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: April 20, 2012

Jeff Recommended

For more info checkout the Opus 1861 page at

At City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago, IL, call 773-293-3682,, tickets $25, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 5 & 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, plus Thursday, May 10 at 8 pm, running time is 70 minutes without intermission, through May 13, 2012


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