note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Beverly Creasey
ABYSSINIA is the story of a young woman (Shannon Antalan) who loses faith after a tornado sets tragedy in motion. You can’t help but think of that other little girl who is caught up in a twister, especially when the setting for ABYSSINIA is a stone’s throw from Kansas. The thrust of this tornado tale is about Abyssinia finding her way back home [to God, not Auntie Em]. If that weren’t enough to summon up images of Oz, author James Ratcheff throws in a wicked witch/crazy woman (Uzo Aduba) who keeps popping up to “call down trouble” on poor Abyssinia’s head. There’s a good witch, too, in the person of Mother Vera (BJ Crosby) to watch over and guide Abyssinia. She even utters Glinda’s famous “You have to find it out for yourself” except now it’s “Nobody’s gonna tell you. You gotta do that for yourself.”
Ted Kociolek and James Ratcheff’s upbeat foot-stomping production numbers like “Pickin’ Up The Pieces” work best. Director Stafford Arima gets terrific ensemble work from Andre Garner and company burning up the stage with Tod Underwood’s infectious choreography, bending low and scooping up those broken hopes and dreams and thrusting them into the sky, all arms high in the air in triumph.
Less effective are songs like “Rise and Fly” chiefly because it’s too difficult to block the genuine article out of your brain. It’s just too close to the transcendent “I’ll Fly Away.” The same goes for ABYSSINIA’s “Lift Up Your Voice”: I was singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in my head. I confess I wandered again in the raucous “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan,” although the powerfully catchy chorus brought me back from the wittier Bible stories in “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It’s hard to go up against James Weldon Johnson or George Gershwin. Nevertheless, the vivacious ensemble work, in raucous songs like the “Recipe” number, make ABYSSINIA worth visiting—and now that North Shore is in residence in Boston (through their next show), it’s your chance to see their spirit and versatility without the long ride.