Reviewed by John Garcia, Talkin’ Broadway
That line is sung during a powerful moment in the song "Abby's Lament" after she has gone through some very devastating personal situations in Abyssinia, now making its Texas premiere at Lyric Stage Musicals. Upon hearing her sing these lyrics, one cannot help but think of last month's World Trade Center terrorist attacks. I'm sure some people who were in the middle of that horrific day have asked the same question that Abyssinia asks. One of the final lines has her sobbing, looking upward, saying, "God, oh God. Do you hear me?" The art of musical theatre can transcend the stage boards to reflect actual life, and there's no greater example than that of the journey of Abyssinia.
Last year Lyric Stage Musicals mounted one of the best new musicals that was presented to metroplex audiences, Richard Cory. Now in its ninth season, LSM produces yet another amazing work of art with Abyssinia.
Abyssinia is the story of a young African American girl born during a tornado who has a connection to God in song and voice. She can bring a deep inner soul to life with her vocals. Surrounding her are loving parents and a woman named Mother Vera who is the spiritual healer of their small town. Also in this town is a cruel and angry woman named Trembling Sally who lost her own children in the very same tornado that touched the earth on the day Abyssinia was born. Sally is determined to bring pain and sorrow into this young girl's life at whatever cost. When Abyssinia's life goes into despair and darkness due to several sick and horrific events, and God won't give her a reason why he did these things to her, she refuses to sing anymore. She was so connected to her spiritual side and her religious beliefs, only to have those beliefs crumble to the ground, she is left questioning her faith and the world that her spiritual leader created. How could this holy person wreak such horror in her life, after all the good she has done? How can he do this? It is this inner journey that we go on with Abyssinia, made touching and moving by a majestic cast.
The score of this show is just breathtaking. Ted Kociolek and James Racheff have created music from the genres of gospel, jazz, ragtime, plus other musical flavors. The score is rich, powerful, uplifting, and truly one of the finest scores of a new musical today, demanding to be recorded. Both composers have written the company numbers in a grand scale of soaring music and vocals. The solos are priceless jewels that sparkle so brightly thanks not only to the notes and music written, but also to the performers who truly do justice to the passion of the material. There is a cornucopia of songs to fill the evening. The lyrics create wonderful mental pictures, but also give inner insight into what the characters are thinking and feeling at that moment, and that is truly is moving. This score is a masterpiece.
The book is as solid as the music, rare for a contemporary musical. The book moves the character development and storyline with grace and ease. It handles tough subject matter with taste and class.
Director Josephine Abady (whose credits include the Broadway revival of Born Yesterday, starring the late Madeline Kahn, and the original The Cemetery Club) brings forth first-rate performances from her cast. Abady shows respect to the material by giving equal weight and understanding to her cast and the score. The blocking around the simplistic set has the cast moving with purpose and reason. Abady keeps the exposition moving nicely and creates grand "picture windows" in her blocking. But her strength comes from bringing outstanding performances from her cast.
Musical Director Sheilah Vaughn Walker conducts with marvelous technique. The eight piece orchestra brings the score to delicious life. Walker has national credits that include musical directing Ragtime and the current national tour of Fiddler On The Roof, starring Theodore Bikel. She is energetic in the pit and keeps the tempos and movements of the score in perfect unison with the cast. Credit here must also go to Sound Designer J.D. Jones; he gives great balance to both the orchestra and the singers.
The physical aspects of the production match the expertise of the production staff. Susan A. White's lighting design bathes the stage with light to give the emotion of each scene more impact with a palette of colors. Wade Giampa's set has the back part raked, a circular set of platforms, and sliding platforms on either side close to the lip of the stage. He has fantastic set pieces of meshed brown material and yarn to reflect the brown earth of the land. Thomas R. Jaekels' costumes are simplistic, in natural cloth, and look very appropriate to the period in which the story takes place.
But let's get to those performances! The title role falls on the small frame of the very beautiful Kia Dawn Fulton. Through her soprano voice the notes soar with force, power, and dignity. Her voice is clean, with a vibrato that evokes strength and power. Fulton has a basketful of songs to sing, and she delivers each one with resounding success. Her first number, "Lift Up Your Voice," sets the precedent for what to expect from that voice. Other songs that she sings are operatic in scope, including "There Has To Be A Reason," "Abby's Lament," and the crème de la crème number, "Rise and Fly." Fulton has an innocence in her acting that fits the role perfectly. Her outlook on life is pure and devoid of any of life's horror. But when the cold dark evil of the other side of life does take hold of her, you see pain and sorrow in her acting and especially in her arias. Ms. Fulton is the star in this production.
Mother Vera is played by Broadway actress Carol Dennis, last seen on the great white way in Street Corner Symphony at the Brooks-Atkinson. She has also been on Broadway in The Wiz, Big River, and Once On This Island. Ms. Dennis has played the role of Mother Vera in other productions in various cities around the country, so her scope and understanding of the role is superb. She shows compassion for the town's problems and a motherly love for Abyssinia. Dennis's acting is deeply moving. Then there's that voice! Dennis has a solo called "Honey and Lemon" that was met with great applause from the audience Saturday night. The song's music reminds me of "If You Believe" from The Wiz; it has that same uplifting emotion. Dennis also shows charming comic ability in the song "Recipe." Ms. Dennis has extremely powerful stage presence; it easily fills the Music Hall. She is regal, elegant, and gives a mesmerizing performance.
In the supporting roles are equally incredible performances. Kevin Halliburton (who killed me by laughter in Coop DeVille at Jubilee Theater) portrays the Minister with religious fervor and extremely strong conviction. He allows some of his expert comic talents to show through the company number "Pickin' Up The Pieces." This is a rousing company number that lifts you from your seats, and a major reason is due to Mr. Halliburton's singing brilliance. He is outstanding, as we have come to expect.
N. Wilson King, who was superb in Theatre 3's And The World Goes Round, gives a deeply moving performance as Abyssinia's mother. She has only one song, but it's a beauty, called "Sisters of Healing," a soothing ballad with jazz and gospel undertones. King sings with deeply felt emotion and gorgeous soprano vocals. And her acting is equally powerful. She gives a truly remarkable performance.
Michele Rene Oliver is haunting as Trembling Sally, the woman who has lost her children. She sings a dark and cold number, "Ten Little Children," with such emotion and conviction, you feel the cold, bleak, pathos of her heart. She is outstanding in the role.
Selma Pinkard, Cardelia Smith, and Regina D. Hill play the three women of the town who add wonderful moments of comedy. Ms. Hill is especially hysterical with her "holier than thou" attitude and busybody antics. These three ladies have a humorous number titled "Get Thee Behind Me Satan." They are a delight.
Others in the cast who give first rate performances are Laurence Pete as Lucas Jackson, Jamalia Davis as Lilly/Mother Samuels, and M. Gerrard Powers, Billy Poole, and Marvin L. Joshua as the city slickers who come into town to cause trouble.
The company as a whole sings with gorgeous harmonies and full belting vocals during such numbers as "Rise and Fly," "Abyssinia," "Lift Up Your Voice," Carry Me Lord," and "Picking Up the Pieces." One number, called "Ragtime Promenade," reminds me so much of the opening number from the musical Ragtime, with the ladies carrying small umbrellas, and the cast dressed in white and dancing in jazz style choreography. I love this number. The ensemble is as powerful as the principals. There are a few problems in the production, but they are minor. I wish there were underscoring for the transitions. There is silence after the blackouts and the set movements can be heard. This hurts the moment of what just transpired on stage. The sliding set platforms tend to be extremely loud and at times catch on something, stopping mid-movement and causing jerks and awkward pauses. I am sure these problems will clean themselves up as the production goes on.
Lyric Stage Musicals is a major treasure in our city. Sure, they do mount at least one warhorse musical a year, but their remaining season brings to life musicals that we rarely get to see. I am a major fan of the new material. I want to see new, fresh, and never before mounted productions. And now they have mounted a production that has a large ethnic cast. So very few theatres in our metroplex do this. LSM has earned my deepest respect on many levels for taking a risk and producing Abyssinia. Bravo Lyric Stage, Bravo!!
We as a nation are right now dealing with the World Trade Center/Pentagon/Pennsylvania attacks and its aftermath. Abyssinia's furious cries and pleas to God reflect what I'm sure we all have asked ourselves in our prayers about what has happened in our nation. Do yourself a favor and let the cast and music soothe that pain in their journey with a small girl named "Abyssinia".
They soothed mine.