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Another stage — Merrill Osmond tackles dramatic role in Hale's 'Civil War'

It's a Monday night. Merrill Osmond has rehearsed for less than a week with the rest of the cast of "The Civil War." But he's doing all right, this veteran performer.

His gravelly voice blends nicely with the other actors' silky tenors. When it comes to negotiating the stage, he's not making many more mistakes than those who have been practicing together for more than a month.

Osmond's sword does clunk on the floor when he sits on his camp stool. But that's understandable. The swords are authentic replicas of those carried in the Civil War, and they are huge. Some of the other actors are also still struggling to get their weapons under control.

Later in the rehearsal, Osmond is late coming in for his duet with the Southern captain. But then, the Southern captain is late as well.

Director Andrew Barrus corrects Osmond and the other actor in exactly the same matter-of-fact tone. When corrected, Osmond doesn't waste time talking, he just heads back up the stairs and enters again. This time, he's on cue.

Sally Dietlin, executive producer at Hale Centre Theatre, says the other actors have been pleasantly surprised by Osmond, by his humility and by how hard he works. "There's no attitude with him," she says.

As for Osmond, he's impressed with the professionalism he's found at Hale. He mentions the singing, the acting. "And the choreography is the best I've seen."

The stage is in five sections, and it seems at least one section is submerged at any given time. A fall would be disastrous, Osmond realizes.

Still, "I don't think I've ever had more fun," he said. "I've always wanted to do this play."

His famous brother, Donny, became identified with "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," he points out. His famous sister Marie just made her mark on "Dancing With the Stars."

Merrill Osmond admits he would not mind being identified with this musical, "The Civil War." Osmond loves history, and he thinks Frank Wildhorn's script and songs are incredibly important just now, as our nation once again finds itself in a long war. He says he's seen at least one person cry during every rehearsal he's attended.

Osmond sought the role of Capt. Emmett Lochran. He and Dietlin agree that's the way it happened. Osmond talked to his friend Larry Gatlin, of the Gatlin Brothers, who was playing Lochran in a national touring production. Gatlin told him the musical was being performed in Utah later in the year. Osmond asked his agent to call Hale Centre.

Eventually, Dietlin and her husband, Mark, went to Branson, Mo., in time to catch Osmond's last performance there. They liked his voice. "He's solid," she said.

Dietlin says there was a third party involved in the negotiations as well, a mutual friend who offered to donate the amount Osmond would need for a salary. That clinched the deal for Dietlin, who adds that other actors are getting paid between $40 and $70 for each performance, which is more than Hale Centre usually pays.

She thinks the production will sell out. When he was hired by Hale Centre, Osmond had a couple of conflicts, performances he'd already agreed to in Las Vegas and on a cruise ship. Dietlin says the theater will be up-front with customers about which performances will be done by the understudy, David Weeks.

Osmond will be on hand for the majority of the run, she notes. "Including the student matinees. We were amazed."

Dietlin has wanted to do this play for years. She acknowledges that the "The Civil War" met with mixed reviews during its two-month run on Broadway. The script uses the actual words of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, as well as the poetry of Walt Whitman. Still, some critics didn't think there was enough of a story line.

But Dietlin has long pictured "The Civil War" in her center stage theater. Wildhorn's script and songs will succeed because of the intimacy Hale Centre can offer, she believes.

As for Barrus, the director, he is so passionate about the script that he spent last summer visiting Civil War sites and taking photos. He is proud of the authentic costumes and props.

"It is a different style of play for us," Barrus concedes. It was a challenge to choose six or seven characters to highlight, he says. But he felt he had to make some characters stand out, to help the audience forge a relationship with them.

He notes that Wildhorn's other plays didn't last long on Broadway, either. But "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Jekyll and Hyde" continue to be performed. As with those two, Wildhorn has continued to refine this play. It features songs that were not part of the original production.

Meanwhile, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Osmond Brothers. Fifty years ago, 4-year-old Merrill Osmond sang with his brothers for the first time in a barbershop quartet in their hometown of Ogden. Later the quartet went to Disneyland and then on to the Andy Williams show. Alan, Wayne, Jay and Merrill will be joined by Donny, Marie and Jimmy on portions of their reunion World Tour.

Osmond sounds bemused by the fact that he and his family are getting more offers than he expected they'd get for this reunion. The Osmonds are very big in the Ukraine, he says. He's turned down opportunities to perform this spring, he says.

He figures he'll eventually get to those other places. He is ready to follow the reunion as long as public interest holds out.

But first this, "The Civil War," at Hale Centre Theatre, in his home state. Osmond said, "I knew I had to make time for this in my life. I knew in my heart this was the right season."

If you go ...

What: "The Civil War"

Where: Hale Centre Theatre, 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive, West Valley City

When: Tuesday through April 5

How much: $15-$25

Phone: 984-9000