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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Civil War diary becomes original musical

Monday, January 19, 2009

"Civil War Voices," adapted from the diary of an ancestor of the Harris family of McCook, will be presented in McCook a week after it premieres at the Lied Center in Lincoln.
(Courtesy photo)
Despite the horror of the Civil War, the American spirit emerged stronger and more heartfelt than ever before. That is the majestic message of "Civil War Voices," an original musical which will be presented Saturday, Feb. 21, at the historic Fox Theatre in McCook.

The professional presentation will serve as the Western Nebraska Premiere of the show, which was written by Jim Harris, a 1973 graduate of McCook High School and arranged and scored by Mark Hayes, a world renowned composer.

The Civil War Voices production will come to McCook one week after it is presented at the Lied Center as a highlight presentation during Lincoln's 200th anniversary. "We are bringing the entire Lied Center production to McCook," Harris said. That will be a major undertaking as there are more than 25 members of the cast, crew and orchestra, as well as a considerable amount of sets, backdrops and sound equipment.

"We are extremely grateful that the Harris Brothers are bringing the production to McCook," said Charles Coleman, vice president of the Fox Theatre Board of Directors. "It is a wonderful story, told with a touching blend of truth and love."

The Western Nebraska premiere will serve as the kickoff for the Fox Fund Drive, with money raised from ticket sales and sponsorships going for the renovation of McCook's historic downtown theatre.

"We are benefiting from the generosity of Jim and his brothers, who are paying the expenses for bringing Jim's original musical to McCook," Coleman said. The Harris brothers, namely J.T., Bill, Bob, Bert and Jim, all grew up in McCook. They are the sons of John T. and Eleanor Harris, long time owners and operators of DeGroff's Department Store and the Gro-Mo Company.

The Civil War Voices production in McCook is being co-directed by Robin McKercher and Rhonda Lake, a husband-and-wife team from Doane College in Crete.

"I had many inspirations along the way, but it was Robin who gave me the final push to get the show in production," Jim said.

Civil War Voices began taking shape when Jim, now 53, was in his early 20s. "I was digging for family history when I came across my great-great uncle Joe's Civil War diary. It was old and hard to read, but that century-old book became one of the most precious finds of my life," Jim said.

Harris held firm to the fascination for years, finally going public with a series of speeches about his Uncle Joe's diaries in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then, on a trip with his brothers to their father's home place in Opelika, Ala., it struck Jim: "That's it. I need to do a musical about the Civil War."

It didn't happen overnight. But it happened. "To get the musical written, I finally had to lock myself in a time share in Las Vegas," Jim said. "I came out of the secluded writing session with the theme and the plan for the production. Time was of the essence because my brother, Bert, wanted the show ready for the dedication of the Museum of East Alabama, which was founded by our parents."

From that point forward, everything fell into place. The most crucial step came when Mark Hayes, the famed composer and arranger from Kansas City, agreed to do the scoring and arranging. "That uplifted the Civil War Voices production from a good story to a magnificent presentation," Jim Harris said.

The show's featured roles are:

* Uncle Joe Harris, performed by the Civil War Voices author, Jim Harris. Harris is a baritone. Joseph Henry Harris, Jim's great, great uncle, was a young man when he served in the Civil War. He completed his war service in April of 1865 and wrote the final words in his war diary in December of 1865.

* Elizabeth Keckley, a slave who served the Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln families. Miss Keckley is brought to life by Camille Matoyer-Moten, a mezzo-soprano from Omaha who both McKercher and Harris describe as "an outstanding performer with a fabulous voice."

* Theo and Harriett Perry, a Texas couple forced apart when Theo went to war for the South. Their story was originally told in "Widows by the Thousands," and features their exchange of letters about love and their daughter, nicknamed Sugar Lumpy. The parts are played by Seth Fox, a tenor from Omaha, and Beth Asbjornson, an Omaha soprano.

* And, lastly, Civil War Voices features Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of the Battle of Gettysburg. Chamberlain is enacted by Jeremy Kendall, a tenor from Lincoln.

The cast of professional singers is served well by classic songs from the Civil War era, including "Beautiful Dreamer," "Aura Lee," "Battle Cry of Freedom," "Amazing Grace," "Goober Peas," and "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Jim Harris, the writer and lead singer, is remembered in McCook for his starring role as Tevya in McCook High School's 1973 production of Fiddler on the Roof.

"I first realized the power of the story when I was reading the words of Uncle Joe, with Dixie playing mournfully in the background. People began crying. I knew then that although the Civil War story is more than a century old, the message is as meaningful today as it was those many years ago," Jim said.

Civil War Voices closes with the triumphant, uplifting words of Uncle Joe, sung and spoken by Jim Harris. "It is the words of Uncle Joe, as brought to life by Jim, which elevates Civil War Voices to an epic level. Uncle Joe's words of inspiration -- written after the terribly tragic Civil War -- is a terrific testament to the strength and resolve of the American people," Director Robin McKercher said.

McKercher concludes: "The people in Civil War Voices face the great tragedy of war with elegance, dignity and grace. Their stories are timely and uplifting. Rhonda and I are honored to help Jim bring this musical tribute to the stage of the historic Fox."

Ticket prices for the Feb. 21 Civil War Voices production at the Fox are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. The advance tickets are going on sale this week. They may be purchased at Hershberger Music Co. or ordered by sending the number of tickets needed and checks to: the Fox Theatre, P.O. Box 211, McCook, NE 69001. Tickets also may be reserved by e-mailing ticket requests to: www.foxtheatremc cook.com. Tickets are also available from members of the Fox Operations & Events Committee.

"We are dedicated to filling the Fox for this outstanding Civil War epic," Coleman said. "It will not only be an excellent way to launch the Fox Theatre renovation campaign, it will be a memorable experience for all who attend."

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