When the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Legendary Soul Stirrers break into “Stop: Do Not Go On,” the third musical number in “The Gospel at Colonus,” it’s as if a light has come on. The audience at the Apollo Theater (235 West 125th Street, Harlem) bursts into spontaneous applause. This is what they’ve come to see, and if the rest of the production were half as energizing, this show would be a must-see.
When the show had its premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the 1983 Next Wave Festival, it won an Obie Award for best Off Broadway musical. But larger venues mean higher expectations, and the 1988 Broadway production, which ran less than two months, prompted Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times, to pronounce its device, turning a Greek tragedy into a Pentecostal church service, “a marriage of glib intellectual convenience that distorts and dilutes both” elements. “One soon gets restless between song cues,” Mr. Rich wrote. And this is sadly true of the new production.
Lee Breuer’s original lyrics and Bob Telson’s music and adapted lyrics are well done, sometimes exceptionally. The same cannot be said of Mr. Breuer’s book, adapted from Sophocles’ tale of Oedipus, the world’s best-known incest perpetrator and survivor, now an old, self-blinded man still racked with guilt, stopping to rest in a sacred grove and looking for a place to die.
It is possible to sit through “The Gospel at Colonus” without fully getting the story. The Preacher (Charles S. Dutton) doubles as the speaking Oedipus. (Both Oedipus and Choragos are sung by the aforementioned musical groups.) He provides the back story from the pulpit, referring right away to a “net of incest, mingling wives, sisters, mothers, with fathers, sons, brothers” and describing the suicide of Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother and wife. But even with the helpful recap at the top of Act II, a lot of details are lost.
There are plenty of reasons, in addition to the two quintets, to admire this show. Kevin Davis (as Polyneices, Oedipus’ son) and Jay Caldwell (as both Creon and the Deacon) give forceful performances that advance the plot in sorely needed ways.
The church choir, composed of the Abyssinian Baptist and Institutional Radio Choirs, is strong and often compelling, especially in the accusing “Evil Kindness, You’d Take Him Away.”
Carolyn Johnson-White, the soloist dressed as a 20th-century church lady when she sings “Lift Him Up,” has a voice that might tempt an atheist to praise heaven. The production looks good, too, with a grand staircase flanked on one side by the choir in bright African robes and on the other by a white piano on a platform, but the staging was not done with the people in the balcony in mind.
Much of the action takes place so far downstage that even with repeated neck craning, theatergoers frequently can’t see the performers .
“The Gospel at Colonus” continues through Nov. 7.