I think that one of the tests of what is good theatre is if you’re still thinking about what you saw and heard a few days later. I saw a musical like that last week; it’s part of this year’s NYMF festival. One of the reasons I’m still thinking about “Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done” is that I’m still not sure it’s really a musical. It’s some mixture of musical and opera and church, with beautiful, stirring gospel music and great singers.
The show is about a slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822. The protagonist is a freeman, Denmark Vesey (Horace Rogers), who is trying to buy freedom for his wife and two children. Chloe, Denmark and Rose Vesey are owned by the evil Col. Moore (David Andrew Anderson, who literally stops the show with the ballad “Answer My Prayer”). The bulk of the action is built around the independent church that Vesey and Bishop Thomas (Allen Kendall) found. The church flourishes, it’s thwarted, it battles on and its members literally die for it. All through this wonderful music- arias, recitatives, call-and-response. It’s incredibly compelling. And if you check out the show’s website, you’ll see praise from no less than William Styron and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I can totally see it being performed in a church setting. The musician in me is sold on it.
But at the same time, the Dramahound is thinking do you really need two cute children to exploit the audience’s empathy? The creator (composer/lyricist/librettist Walter Robinson) of the show writes gorgeous music, but the false rhymes in the lyrics start very early on, and they’re distracting (I know Tony Kushner writes false rhymes too, but I find that practice no less distracting when it comes from him). The show’s blurb (the theatrical equivalent of a logline in film- I’m not sure what you call it) is “A love story twisted by slavery.” Which is unfortunate, because we don’t so much see the love story of the couple as we see the struggles of Prosser Vesey and his church. We learn about the characters through the music itself, but we really aren’t given anything other than broad outlines in the libretto and the lyrics. And as underwritten as the male characters are, the female characters are even more so. This is not to say it’s unwatchable- there aren’t any bad performances and Hilary Adams does a commendable job with the direction. I just wanted it to be better.
You have four more chances to see it at St. Clement’s.