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The Gospel at Colonus

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Never underestimate the ability of gospel music to turn a middling show into a rousing success. In The Gospel at Colonus, a new production of which just opened at the Apollo Theater, not a single spoken word is capable of generating any locomotion whatsoever, but the cast is brimming with such unstoppable energy that they aren't satisfied until they get every audience member on his or her feet.

This remarkable instance of wham-bam style overcoming dreary substance occurs, as might be expected, very late in the evening. The song is coyly listed in the program as "Doxology, the Paean," with its effective title ("Lift Him Up") given just after in parentheses. Led by soloist Carolyn Johnson-White, the number is a jubilant, endless rave-up that gets your hands clapping and your feet uncontrollably tapping before it forces you to your feet in rhapsodic exultation.

To what degree does the show earn such a moment? That's much harder to say, as so little in Gospel at Colonus is what it at first seems. The show based on Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus, the middle tale in the Greek tragedian's classic triumvirate (the other two, in order, are Oedipus Rex and Antigone), a redemptive examination of the last days of Oedipus's life. As he eventually finds peace and ascends to the afterlife, the implications for a full-out religious treatment of the story aren't hard to find.

That's what brings about the show's one great coup; Lee Breuer (book, original lyrics, and direction) and Bob Telson (music, adapted lyrics, and musical direction) have created a completely immersive theatrical experience seamlessly melding the fiery passion of a black church service with the somewhat icy resolve of Greek drama. This well-chosen combination works well, even if the resulting piece never seems appreciably greater than the sum of its parts. That's because the semi-spiritual aspect of the show that wins out, for in watering down Sophocles's intricate play to incorporate all the gospel numbers (there are a dozen or so), Gospel at Colonus achieves very little of interest through its text alone.

If you go in expecting to follow the story they're purportedly telling, well, forget about it - Oedipus's dealings with his daughters, son, and others begging for his blessing before his imminent death aren't really the focus, and when everyone explodes in "Lift Him Up," it's not Oedipus they're really singing about. But as a presentation, the show still borders on brilliant, never letting you catch your breath as the parade of characters, roster of songs, and the verve of the people onstage continue building the show into a veritable frenzy.

Alison Yerxa's set combines mythical imagery appropriate for Greek theatre with the sharp-edged realism of a house of worship. A five-piece band (including a piano, played by Telson, and an organ) creates just the right sound for the show, and a large chorus (consisting of the Abyssinian Baptist and Institutional Radio Choirs) seated upstage on a steeply raked staircase provides plenty of juicy vocals. The "preacher," named The Messenger in the program and effectively played by Charles S. Dutton, explodes with rich-voiced fervor as he spins the tale of Oedipus's final days. The costumes, originally designed by Gretta Hynd, are all very colorful; so are the lights designed by Jason Boyd (based on Julie Archer's original designs).

The actors in the story are drawn from the soloists or speakers at the "church," and the real-life performers playing them are uniformly excellent: These include Oedipus (played by The Blind Boys of Alabama, featuring Clarence Fountain); his daughters, Ismene and Antigone (Jevetta Steele and Bernardine Mitchell); Theseus, the king of Athens (Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller), Oedipus's deceitful son Polyneices (Kevin Davis); and so on. They all masterfully navigate each new twist in the watered-down plot that calls for a song commenting on the action in various soul-searching ways, ranging from Ismene's early "Live Where You Can" to Antigone's "Love Unconquerable," and the final, quietly beautiful closing hymn, "Now Let the Weeping Cease."

That song is so named because, we're told, no one should feel sorry about Oedipus's fate; he found his happy ending when he finally received the redemption he sought in life. It's ironic, then, that Gospel at Colonus is never moving enough to encourage the weeping to start, but when feet are stomping and hands are clapping at dizzying volume levels all around you, does it really matter? Breuer and Telson would suggest it doesn't, and in this case, I'm inclined to agree.

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The Gospel at Colonus
Through November 7
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission
Apollo Theater, 253 West 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. and Frederick Douglass Blvd.
Tickets online: Ticketmaster