There are some winning performers in this revival of the 1975 musical "Shenandoah," but one wishes they could be seen in some other show. "Shenandoah," which opened last night at the Virginia Theater, is back with the same director (Philip Rose) and star (John Cullum) who led the piece 14 years ago, and it is still laden with enough cliche-ridden sentimentality to make drowning in a vat of molasses seem a desirable alternative.
It's Civil War time, and widower Charlie Anderson, who tills a large farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, is caught between the opposing armies. He stands fast for neutrality, even though his six sons and daughter waver. In fact, his daughter marries a Confederate lieutenant. Naturally, he is recalled to his regiment seconds after the wedding vows. He disappears into the raging cauldron of war. Charlie's youngest son, who wears a Confederate cap he found, is kidnapped by Union troops, and he disappears into the raging cauldron of war.
Charlie, who often talks to his dead wife at graveside, will not take his son's abduction lying down. He leads four of his sons and his just-wed daughter off to search for the boy. He leaves the farm with his oldest son and his pregnant wife. They are promptly murdered by marauders.
But, miraculously, the daughter's husband turns up, tattered but well, during Charlie's quest for the boy. And in the final scene, with the remaining Anderson family in church, who should walk through the door with a tree limb as crutch but the long-lost youngest son?
John Cullum is still in strong voice and his lofty sentiments ring throughout the house. There is fine work, too, from Tracey Moore as the daughter, Thomas Cavanagh as her lieutenant hubby, and Camilla Scott. In fact, everyone in the large cast seems superior to the material they perform.
Way back in 1975, "Shenandoah" was a modest, likable, so-so Broadway musical with one smashing star performance by John Cullum. It ran for 1,050 performances, and that, one might have thought, would have been that. After all, "Oklahoma!" it wasn't.
But last night at the Virginia Theater, "Shenandoah" was surprisingly resuscitated - in some basically Canadian incarnation but still smashingly starring the agelessly dauntless Cullum - and it remains as modest, as likable, yet as so-so as ever.
With its all-American virtues and attitudes, stirring ballads - admittedly the stir is more noticeable than the ballads themselves - its serious Civil War theme that extends itself to thoughts of isolationism and human responsibility, plus its warm sentiment and sentimentality, including a classic three-handkerchief ending, "Shenandoah" will please many looking for downbeat with uplift.
The dramatic weakness, for sensitively stomached souls, is that the theme - taken from the only slightly more emotionally complex scenario of a 1965 movie with James Stewart - is made simplistically, even shamelessly, manipulative.
The ornery sweetness, all molasses and vinegar, of peppy Charlie Anderson, a recently widowed father, addressing - at all convenient moments of stress - his wife's grave, homilistic advice to a young man about to marry or the father's earlier reverie on the loss of a cherished daughter to a fiance she loves is basically sound but commonplace stuff.
After all, father always did know best. But here - and this is where the show's aspirations emerge - Anderson's stubborn determination to keep his family removed from the Civil War and his five elder sons out of the Confederate army is shown to be nothing less than disastrous.
When his youngest son, a child, is kidnapped by Union soldiers, and he and four of his sons and his daughter take off in feverish pursuit, leaving his elder son, with his wife and newborn baby, to the cruel mercy of predatory vagrants, Anderson learns his own hard lesson about no man being an island.
There is more sheer stuff here than in the fluffy stuffing of most musicals; no wonder James Lee Barrett (the original movie-writer), Peter Udell and Philip Rose won the 1975 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. Nothing that portentously intended, even if more modest in achievement than in intent, could really deserve to lose.
Yet be warned. The essentially dull music and lyrics by Gary Geld and Udell, respectively, the same team that gave us "Purlie," are far from the golden fabric of Broadway legend, and even the show's dramatically engrossing book proves clumsily constructed and packaged, ending as if in a cozy afterthought.
I notice that someone writing in The New York Times the other day considered my original 1975 notice of "Shenandoah," also in that good gray broadsheet, to have been "non-committal."
Well, certainly it was not as emphatically judgmental as the fashion now in vogue on that and certain other papers, but I would have called it "balanced."
It is a show, now as then, that almost encourages reservations as much as enthusiasm, but only a very high-minded fellow with a hard heart could let honest reservations build up to total rejection.
Not only will "Shenandoah" charm and hopefully move many, but anyone not pleased by the total conviction and passion of Cullum's sterling performance would have to be dull indeed.
Charlie Anderson gave Cullum the role of his career, and Cullum gave Charlie Anderson a performance that transcends the vehicle it is driving.
Cullum is an actor tending to broad, even grandiloquent effects, and here they are made heart-rendingly appropriate, while his throbbing baritone voice lifts the music up from a level of commonplace ballad into a heroic anthem.
The current production, which started life in Toronto (without Cullum), looks as homespun and unvarnished as the musical itself, but Rose's straightforward staging (even including a few simple battle tableaux to place the story at least somewhat in context) and Robert Tucker's decently integrated choreography, provides "Shenandoah" with a very proper, straight-arrow look.
And the performances of the Canadian company are heartfelt, sincere and, above all, vigorous.
The five brothers and particularly their spunky sister (Tracey Moore) and her tongue-tied lover (Thomas Cavanagh), have a delightfully unforced gusto.
In more difficult assignments, Jason Zimbler as the youngest son and Roy McKay as his best friend, a black slave child of the same age, are agreeably uncute in roles constantly threatening to be the diametric reverse.
"Shenandoah" is not one of the timeless greats of the Broadway musical stage - but if you are in the mood for a few laughs, a few tears, a few songs and one all-out, nostril-flaring star performance, "Shenandoah" might well be the show for you.
Many of the qualities associated with the term old-fashioned musical are abundant in the 1975 show ''Shenandoah,'' which is back on Broadway for a limited run at the Virginia Theater.
A Civil War yarn adapted from a 1965 movie that starred James Stewart, ''Shenandoah'' has a red-blooded ambiance, and its homey folk-pop score by Gary Geld with lyrics by Peter Udell grasps at the essence of Americana. But it misses.
The best thing about ''Shenandoah'' is its main character, Charlie Anderson. A rugged John Wayne type who rules firmly over a family of six boys and one girl, he is a cranky, opinionated widower with a warm heart under his leathery exterior. When things get too tough, he repairs to the family plot for soulful communion with his revered dead wife.
Because Charlie is the only figure in ''Shenandoah'' who is more than a sketch, any production of the show demands a leading actor who crackles with the craggy machismo of a stubborn frontiersman. John Cullum, who reprises his original Tony Award-winning performance, fits the bill perfectly. In Mr. Cullum's detailed, vocally forceful performance, Charlie is thunderously willful, maddeningly superstitious and hot-tempered, but also strong, caring and likable.
The wrinkle in Charlie's personality is that he doesn't believe in fighting other people's wars. When the Civil War comes to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where he and his children tend a prosperous farm, he refuses to let anybody in the family enter the fray. Lest anyone think the Anderson boys are shrinking violets, however, they assure us in the song ''Next to Lovin' (I Like Fightin')'' that they are just itching to raise some hell on the battlefield.
The Andersons ultimately learn the hard way that when everything around you is in flames, you are bound to catch some of the heat. One day Union soldiers abduct the youngest boy, Robert, because he happens to be wearing a Confederate cap. All but one of the Anderson men leave home to look for him. James, Charlie's oldest son, is instructed to stay on the farm and care for his wife and newborn child, and they become the victims of scavenging soldiers.
Both musically and in its moral tone, ''Shenandoah'' aspires to be the equal of ''Oklahoma!'' or ''South Pacific,'' two Rodgers and Hammerstein shows that celebrate American machismo while exploring the meaning of courage and the nature of the male fighting spirit.
The score, though tuneful, lacks any songs with the kind of majesty so abundant in Rodgers and Hammerstein. And the more closely Geld and Udell try to follow Rodgers and Hammerstein, the more they stumble, as in ''It's a Boy,'' a feeble echo of the ''Soliloquy'' from ''Carousel.'' Ballads like ''Violets and Silverbells,'' the wedding song of Charlie's daughter, Jenny, and her soldier husband, Sam, strive for a classic simplicity but sound only self-consciously cutesy.
When ''Shenandoah'' opened on Broadway 14 years ago, it had a historical resonance. America's divided emotions over the Vietnam War were still fresh and its wounds were just beginning to mend. In the new production, that resonance is lost.
Because the book, by James Lee Barrett, who wrote the original screenplay, succeeds in developing only one full-blown character, the show generates no strong sense of family or community. The other members of the Anderson clan have little more substance than the tacky painted scenery through which they move.
''Shenandoah'' is well constructed in a paint-by-numbers sort of way. The songs are carefully folded into the book's copious dialogue. Instead of an overture, the show uses a martial prologue, ''Raise the Flag of Dixie,'' to set the scene. The story itself is symmetrically framed by scenes of the Anderson family in church. Hearty set pieces on the Anderson homestead are interwoven with Charlie's graveside soliloquies and with playful conversations between Robert (Jason Zimbler) and Gabriel (Roy McKay), his black playmate.
Except for the quavery-voiced performance of Thomas Cavanagh in the role of a shy husband who marries into the family, the supporting cast is adequate. But while the singing and occasional dancing are smooth, the acting under the direction of Philip Rose seems strictly by rote, the exception being Mr. Cullum.
That may help explain why a show that deals with the passions of war feels so cold, mechanical and morally weightless. ''Shenandoah'' never acquires the dramatic urgency of a serious musical play.