In a contrived sequence in this debuting Civil War-era musical, a cheery group number breaks out on a fierce battlefield, as Confederate soldiers try to forestall an impending attack by the Union Army. This conjures memories of Jerry Herman's The Grand Tour, which is filled with "The Nazis are coming, the Nazis are coming" scenes in which desperate fugitives inexplicably stop running in order to deliver an upbeat ditty and immediately get caught, suggesting their doom was sealed by being in a musical -- or by utter stupidity. Other and better musicals come to mind in Grammy winner Marcus Hummon's derivative score, such as Jason Robert Brown's Parade and Roger Miller's Big River. There are also portions that sound like Grand Ole Opry - style hoedowns. Yet Hummon's all-over-the-map score isn't Atlanta's biggest problem. Indeed, a few songs are among the show's halfway-palatable elements. What this piece -- scripted by Hummon and Adrian Pasdar and directed by Pasdar and Randall Arney -- lacks is a discernible sense of vision or purpose, let alone narrative or thematic coherence.
The lumbering tale involves a Union soldier, Paul (Ken Barnett), who masquerades as a Confederate to save his skin behind enemy lines. In charge is a drunken, deranged colonel (John Fleck), burping boorishly and camping it up as if he's wandered in from a gay farce. He forces his African-American slaves to perform Shakespearean passages for him, some set to music. Amusing the lunatic leader are the strapping Hamlet (Leonard Roberts); a lovely maiden, Cleo (Merle Dandridge); and an androgynous cutup, Puck (Moe Daniels). Paul is recruited to become a part of the enemy-lines cabaret, which includes anachronistic dance moves of all types, choreographed by Kay Cole. Between stylized battle scenes and the silly vaudevillian charades, Paul finds time to read letters he found in the jacket of a soldier he killed. They're from the late soldier's woman back home, named Atlanta (JoNell Kennedy). The song "I'm Coming Home to Atlanta" has a double meaning. Get it?
The valiant cast members, who generally sing capably, can't be faulted. Co-directors Arney and Pasdar do little to make the show's disparate pieces cohere, let alone engage us. Even the ambitious scenic elements fail to connect, having the feel of a modernistic slide show. Without complete conceptual rethinking and a lot of retooling, this woebegone endeavor seems destined to quickly be gone with the wind.
Presented by and at the Geffen Playhouse,
10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
Tue.-Thu. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 & 8:30 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. (Dark Dec. 25.) Nov. 28-Jan. 6.
(310) 208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com.