Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Abyssinia"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


music by Ted Kociolek; lyrics by James Racheff
book by James Racheff and Ted Kociolek,
based on “Marked by Fire” by Joyce Carol Thomas
directed by Stafford Arima
choreographed by Todd L. Underwood
music direction by Michael O’Flaherty

Minister … André Garner
Mother Vera … BJ Crosby
Abyssinia Jackson … Shannon Antalan
Lucas … Nathaniel Stampley
Brother Samuels … Edward M. Barker
Patience Jackson … Karole Foreman
Selma … NaTasha Yvette Williams
Corine … Q. Smith
Mavis … Angela Karol Grovey
Lily … Lisa Nicole Wilkerson
Trembling Sally … Uzo Aduba
Marcus … Derrick Cobey
Leon … Darius Nichols
Jesse … Eric LaJuan Summers


Conductor; Keyboard … Michael O’Flaherty
Flute; Clarinet; Saxophone … Mark Pinto
Trumpet … Jay Daly
Trombone … Walter Bostian
Bass … Ed Krauss
Drums, Percussion … Michael Ambroszewski
Keyboard … Gregory M. Brown

Last month the North Shore Music Theatre’s auditorium suffered extensive damage from a fire caused by electrical malfunction, forcing the company to cancel its production of CINDERELLA after one performance. Now it has taken up temporary residence in Boston’s Shubert Theatre with ABYSSINIA which, by happy coincidence, deals with trauma, healing and triumph over adversity. North Shore first presented ABYSSINIA in 1995 to great acclaim and it plays very nicely in its current proscenium setting. I've not read Joyce Carol Thomas’ teen-novel but assume that its tale of Abyssinia, a black sharecropper’s daughter born during an Oklahoma hurricane and blessed with healing powers and a heavenly voice, is closer to the earth than its musical adaptation which is well-scrubbed and politically correct with its all-black characters as cozy as hobbits in their shire. The harrowing moments are smoothly dissolved in transcendence and the one reference to racism is discretely tucked into a monologue about working on another man’s farm --- one only has to imagine the evening’s three villains played by white actors instead of black ones to realize how much of ABYSSINIA plays in the top soil instead of digging deep down for its joys and pains. Ted Kociolek and James Racheff’s score works best when it evokes gospel and ragtime and there's a sassy showstopper entitled "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan"; other numbers have the familiar-sounding sameness of the New (now Old) Musical --- it is amazing (and distressing) how so many of today’s composers and lyricists share the same voice in their music: whenever Abyssinia is alone onstage you know she is going to start making with the anthems. (ABYSSINIA proposes that all a traumatized woman needs is to witness a birth and a death to get her back on track; what must a traumatized man go through?)

The North Shore production is packed with talent and on the night I attended its audience was warmly vocal in their approval. Shannon Antalan’s Abyssinia has the required poignancy and BJ Crosby gives the all-knowing Mother Vera the correct stump for her to thump upon --- both women must work at nailing down their soaring notes; Ms. Crosby, in particular, shifts register several times to get through her eleven o’clock number. Nathaniel Stampley makes a handsome, ringing Lucas only to disappear after Act One and NaTasha Yvette Williams, Q. Smith and Angela Karol Grovey are delightful as three ample biddies. Apart from Udo Aduba’s one-note madwoman and Lisa Nicole Wilkerson’s good-bad girl, none of the performers perform in period (i.e. rural and “colored”) --- no doubt director Stafford Arima has stressed positive iconography at the expense of historical accuracy and Pamela Scofield has garbed them in costumes that have never known brambles or dustbowls nor hot Oklahoma summers. Granted, ABYSSINIA is a feel-good musical but seeing these classy, well-dressed sharecroppers, passing from church to Sunday social with only a passing nod to the cotton field reminds me of SpeakEasy’s production of ANNA IN THE TROPICS where working in a cigar factory was akin to relaxing in an air-conditioned lounge (when the rudely-awakened Abyssinia challenges the biddies, she is justified in declaring they are ignorant of what she is feeling: up to that moment, everyone has been going their merry Disney way; even the three villains are baby-faced and virginal). Should the past continue to be homogenized, I see no reason why CABIN IN THE SKY, the 1940 all-black musical, cannot be mounted with any protestations: it, too, is folksy and quaint and it has the better score. What courage, what humbling and what acceptance today’s black artists must go through to reforge the connective tissue to their race’s past, but they must --- there’s too much censoring going on in this country, already.

Kirk Bookman’s lighting design is bound to win him prizes for his breathtaking pastels, solid or layered, are the best light-show in town; after awhile, Mr. Bookman goes gel-happy and the skies change color not only from scene to scene but from emotion to emotion, making this storybook Oklahoma one large, cosmic mood ring.

North Shore will continue its Shubert residence with CAMELOT and plans to be back in Beverly in time for THE FULL MONTY; CINDERELLA has been rescheduled for next year. Now that Boston’s historic Gaiety Theatre has been demolished, how comforting to know that this 50-year-old organization will soon rise from its unexpected ashes.

"Abyssinia" (23 August - 11 September)
The Schubert Theatre, 265 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (800) 447-7400

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide