Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Your Arms Too Short to Box with God was the first Broadway musical with a black production team, writers and director. It ran for a little over a year, so in those days it was a modest hit. Revivals in 1980 and 1982 give it additional cache. The script and score were never published and the cast album never transferred to CD, so modern productions are rare; in fact, director Harry Bryce (who worked with Ms. Carroll over several years) had to rely on memory, and music director James Dodge re-created the musical end from the LP and other materials. Songs were lost, so what was probably a two-hour-plus show is now an energy-filled hour and a quarter, but what a 75 minutes.
This musical is written in large emotional arcs, and some of narrative is presumed rather than specific, with the emotions of Jesus' followers providing the drive. Jesus, Judas and Pontius Pilate all appear, Judas almost exclusively in dance.
The new theater has a larger stage and allows for the biggest cast I've seen in a WBTT production: 16 people, not that fewer has ever been a liability for this company. Several people are new to the company and a few more have appeared only occasionally. Only Donald Frison, Derric Gobourne Jr., Syreeta S. Banks and Joshua Thompson can be thought of as "regulars." But, wow what a cast. Everyone gets at least a few minutes to stand out.
Raleigh Mosely II takes center stage first with "The Sermon" and instantly reminds what a standout talent he is. All through the evening, every song he participates in is uplifted by his presence. Dai'Sean Garrett, Carvas Pickens, C.J. Melton and Mr. Mosely come together as priests several times throughout the show, first for "We Are the Priest and the Elders," and this grouping sent shivers down my spine. Cequita Monique makes her debut with this company and impresses with "Something Is Wrong in Jerusalem" and later "See How They Done My Lord." Donald Frison dances the betrayal in "Judas Dance" and later Chakara Rose dances Mary in "Veil of the Temple," both excitingly.
Syreeta Banks re-exhibits her star power with the title song and, keeping it the family, her mother Phyllis Banks stuns with "Be Careful Whom You Kiss." Apples do not fall far from their trees! Teresa Stanley shines with "It Was Alone" and later completely blows the roof off the theater with "I Love You So Much Jesus." Charles Wesley Lattimore Jr. is a fine, dignified yet emotionally involved Jesus throughout. His best number is "I Know Have to Leave Here," presaging his early death. Both Derric Gobourne Jr. and Joshua Thompson impress as always with their dancing, and they show continued growth as singers and actors.
Artistic Director Nate Jacobs keeps finding new ways to advance the company by challenging. Director Harry Bryce finds and maintains a narrative where, because of lost material, there might have been none. Donald Frison has choreographed brilliantly. Costumes by Adrienne Pitts are a perfect blend of modern that still suggests the ancient times, the basic set design by Michael Newton-Brown gives everyone a nice space to work in, and Annette Breazeale, usually properties designer, adds a new job to her regular one, headdress designer. James "Jay" Dodge II is production manager and music director. When he leads the musical end of things, WBTT is always at its best.
I hope that now that a performing edition of Your Arms Too Short to Box with God exists, it will be produced more often. It is within its narrative imperfections a work of great beauty, succeeding in bringing an ancient story alive with a modern musical idiom, where Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar flounders. I can't imagine a better realization than the one Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is giving it, so it's don't-miss theatre for theatregoers in Sarasota and beyond.
Your Arms Too Short to Box with God runs through April 5, 2020, at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.
Cast (in alphabetical order):