Reviewed by Will Stackman
When North Shore Music Theatre first presented "Abyssinia" in 1995, this adaptation of Joyce Carol Thomas' novel "Marked By Fire" had already gained a small reputation. Ted Kociolek and James Racheff's music drama, reminiscent of regional theatre efforts in the '30s, is more in the lineage of Scott Joplin's "Treemonisha" than the Broadway musical. Fusing elements of church gospel singing, ragtime, plus jazz vocals and with some sections sung through, the show combines a "folk opera" approach with contemporary music drama practice. Its through line of action is not the melodramatic catastrophes of black sharecropper life in early 20th century rural Oklahoma, but the trial of faith that its heroine undergoes. Reviving this show now when African-American theatre has been strongly defined by August Wilson's monumental series casts Thomas' testament in a different light, quite unlike the less-than-successful recent remounting of "Purlie..."
In the title role, young Shannon Antalan, who appeared on Broadway as Emmie in "Caroline or Change" displays considerable acting range bolstered by a strong voice. She's well supported by veteran singing actress, BJ Crosby , as Mother Vera, the local midwife/healer, who sees in Abby the potential to take over that role in the community. Abyssinia, born under the threat of a tornado, has two loving parents in Karole Foreman as Patience, and especially Nathaniel Stampley as her ambitious, and musical, father Lucas. Together with Andre Garner as the minister, these five provide a vocal core for the show. The comic counterweight is a trio of neighbors, Selma, Corinne, and Mavis, played with authority and sung full throttle by NaTasha Yvette Williams, Q. Smith, and Angela Karol Grovey. The dark force of doubt , eventually overcome, is personified by Uzo Aduba as Trembling Sally, a woman driven mad by the loss of her two children during the same tornado that spared Abby at her birth.
The rest of the ensemble--which figures in more than half the numbers in the show--includes three young black men, Marcus, Leon, and Jesse, played by Derrick Cobey, Darius Nichols, and Eric LaJuan Summers, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson as Abby's flirty friend Lily, and Edward M. Barker as Brother Samuels, a deacon known to indulge. Director Stafford Arima has staged the show on a bare platform with bits of simple furniture to establish each locale, with trees and foliage always nearby and an ever-changing sky behind. Beowulf Bobitt and associate Jo Winiarski have created a basic set which should transfer very well to the Goodspeed, the show's next stop before a hoped-for run in NYC. The regular NSMT audience is left to wonder, however, what extra effects might have been possible in their home theatre.
Music direction duties are handled with precision by Goodspeed's Michael O'Flaherty, conducting a small ensemble from the synthesizer in the Shubert's deep pit. Pamela Scofield's costumes suit the period with admirable variety and a nice palette. Choreographer Todd L. Underwood gets his cast of professionals dancing like ordinary folks, even when the younger set is showing their stuff. In spite of having to convert this production from in-the-round to proscenium owing to a major fire at NSMT just after the opening night of "Cinderella" this summer, the show is full of life and very sharp. NSMT will also stage its next effort, a revival of Lerner and Loewe's "Camelot", in downtown Boston at the Shubert, just before a tryout of "The Boy Friend", Julie Andrew's directorial debut, re-doing the show that brought her to New York. The company is currently planning to be back in their own theatre Nov. 1 with "The Full Monty". The real challenge will be the massive capital campaign to cover the great cost of an almost complete renovation of their performing space. Insurance is never enough. NSMT had been planning a future collaboration with the Wang Center for the Arts, a massive theatre across the street which holds the lease on the Shubert, but this current effort has been heroic. And incidentally, later in the season, they're collaborating with the Lyric Stage Company of Boston for the New England premiere of the Kuschner/Tesori "Caroline or Change." The Lyric is opening their season in a few weeks with "Urinetown". Music theatre fans will get their fill early here in Boston, with even the ART joining the fray shortly with an avant-garde four-person/two piano production of "Cartmen" by the Tony-award winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune.