Sometimes you don’t want to be reminded you can have too much of a good thing.
For all the shows that offer African-American rave-ups as a cheap and painless way to get the audience clapping and on their feet - especially when sung by whites! - Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done is a refreshingly honest change of pace. This gospel opera, written by Walter Robinson and running through today at the Theatre at St. Clement’s as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, doesn’t turn reluctantly to God for a sure-fire showstopper - it embraces Him from the very beginning.
Robinson’s retelling of the story of Denmark Vesey, a Charleston Freeman whose planned 1822 rebellion against local slave owners was thwarted by his own compatriots, does employ a few other styles - chiefly spiritual and recitative - to achieve its storytelling ends. But its bread and butter is gospel, frequently sung within the church (named Shiloh) the blacks themselves establish but occasionally outside it as well, and as soulfelt and true as these numbers are, all that elevated, exalted singing becomes exhausting when it’s essentially all there is.
The songs also have the tendency of flattening emotions across what should be an electrically charged piece. Among the events crying out for song: The separating of Denmark (Horace V. Rogers) from his wife Rose (Selena Nelson), son Prosser (CJ Palma), and daughter Chloe (Tamara Robinson); their reuniting after mother and children are purchased by the deceptively kindly Colonel Moore (David Andrew Anderson); the Shiloh rabble-rousing under that leads to white intervention, combat, and retaliation of the most brutal kind. But spending so much time at the heights you’re driven to by the gospel makes you too light-headed to easily accept the more subdued nature of everyday, out-of-church emotions on which musicals are ideally based.
The few songs that do probe an individual’s passion haven’t received equivalent attention, and don’t make much of a dent in your impressions of this armor-clad musical. Chloe has a sweet lullaby for her father, as well as a frightened solo when she’s separated from her father, but these are puffed-up numbers that seem to give the adorable if quiet actress something to sing rather than a crucial role in musicalizing the plot. (For the record, she has more solos than anyone else in the show; Denmark establishes his character mostly through narration.) Colonel Moore gets his say, too, in the form of the Livingston Taylor-Carol Bayer-Sager interpolation “Answer My Prayer,” incongruous (and overwrought) past the point of ridiculousness.
Director Hilary Adams, choreographer Robert Bianca, and set designer Lara Fabian adeptly establish and move this pageant through its paces, never breaking the show’s unique character or sacrificing its serious intent for easy laughs. The cast, too, is mostly well-judged: Rogers is a smooth and charismatic Denmark; Selena Nelson, though somewhat overparted by the rangy music, brings a palpable maternal pain to Rose; and Anderson nicely underplays the Colonel, never pushing too strenuously to his character’s easily accessible extremes.
Most important, however, is Tyrone Grant, charged with the most daunting task of the evening: Shiloh’s spiritual leader. As Pastor Brown, he leads no fewer than four of the show’s major numbers, and jump-starts the action that sends the show barreling down its inevitable tragic course. But he too seems like a minor personality in service of a higher musical calling doing everything it can to keep you engaged when you might otherwise be nodding off. Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done unfortunately proves that being flooded with excitement can be just as dulling as having none at all.
Venue: The Theater at St. Clements, 423 West 46th street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues