BWW Review: World Premiere Musical WITNESS UGANDA at American Repertory Theater
Written by Matt Gould & Griffin Matthews, Directed by Diana Paulus; Set Design, Tom Pye; Costume Design, ESosa; Lighting Design, Maruti Evans; Sound Design, Jonathan Deans; Projection Design, Peter Nigrini; Music Supervision, Orchestrations, and Vocal Arrangements, Matt Gould; Music Director, Remy Kurs; Associate Director, Shira Milikowsky; Production Stage Manager, Carolyn Boyd; Choreography, Darrell Grand Moultrie
CAST (in order of speaking): Griffin Matthews, Michael Luwoye, Adeola Role, Emma Hunton, Nicolette Robinson, Kristolyn Lloyd, Jamar Williams, Tyrone Davis, Jr.; ENSEMBLE: Melody Betts, Rodrick Covington, Kevin Curtis, LaTrisa Harper, Aisha Jackson, Jamard Richardson; BAND: Matt Gould, Brian Li, Andrew Griffin, Nathan V. Terry, Charlie Chronopoulos, Jonny Morrow, Senfuab Stoney
Performances through March 16 at American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.amrep.org
The American Repertory Theater and Artistic Director Diane Paulus provide the latest testing ground for the new musical Witness Uganda, the autobiographical creation of Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould that explores the American impulse to change the world. Winner of the 2012 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater and championed by the likes of composer Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Wicked), Witness Uganda is an electrifying production that combines stellar design elements, breathtaking choreography, and an ensemble of energetic young artists committed to telling their story.
How difficult is it to change the world? That's the musical question that Matthews and Gould ask and answer by sharing the former's experiences as a volunteer for a project working with orphans in Uganda. The story begins in 2005 when the disillusioned Griffin (playing himself) is in personal crisis in New York City, tired of trying to find work as an actor and rejected by his church choir because of his homosexuality. (One question the book fails to address adequately is why he opted to go to Uganda where homosexuality is illegal.) After learning of its leader's corruption, he terminates his association with the orphanage, but not before making a strong, brotherly bond with 19-year old Jacob (Michael Luwoye), to the consternation of the boy's older sister and tough-as-nails guardian Joy (Adeola Role). When Griffin connects with another band of orphans, they convince him to become their teacher because they can't afford to go to school (which is not free in Uganda).
In this arrangement, Griffin feels that he is fulfilling a worthy purpose and making a difference. While not a trained educator, he begins by teaching them life lessons ("I am someone that the world should not miss") and encouraging their dreams. He learns some important lessons from them, too ("If you want a banana to fall on you, don't stand under the avocado tree"), and pledges to raise money for their tuition and other needs when he returns to New York. In the play, Griffin enlists his female friend, singer-songwriter Ryan (Emma Hunton) to the cause, and they work nearly nonstop to scrape together the money. She works double shifts while he collects unemployment and speaks at public gatherings, but Griffin realizes that he must seek help from his church when the circumstances in the village grow dire.
As challenging as their fundraising task becomes, you can't help but want to help the charismatic quartet of Eden (Nicolette Robinson), Grace (Kristolyn Lloyd), Ibrahim (Jamar Williams), and Ronny (Tyrone Davis, Jr.). They each possess some of the less attractive adolescent traits; they are sometimes insensitive, surly, or manipulative. However, they have a genuine thirst for knowledge and, once Griffin convinces them of the possibilities, they have dreams for their futures. In the hands of these fine actors, they also become known to us as fully realized characters who grow and progress throughout the play, finally telling us what success they have achieved in the penultimate scene.
Witness Uganda is at its best when the Gould-conducted band fires up and the ensemble - Melody Betts, Rodrick Covington, Kevin Curtis, LaTrisa Harper, Aisha Jackson, Jamard Richardson - takes to the stage. They set the tone with an exciting dance at the top of the show, and one of the vocal highlights is Betts belting out a joyful noise ("Be The Light"). Gould's compositions blend African rhythms and western pop sounds, with heavy reliance on Senfuab Stoney's virtuosic percussion playing. The rest of the band includes Brian Li, Andrew Griffin, Nathan V. Terry, Charlie Chronopoulos, and Jonny Morrow.
Video Designer Peter Nigrini plays an integral role in the look of the show, projecting splendid vistas as backdrop to the action, and suggesting motion in an otherwise static scene when Griffin and Ryan are flying from New York to Uganda. The physical set designed by Tom Pye is a platform stage that rises on an incline when Griffin and the teens are on the hill where they hang out, and Maruti Evans provides beautiful effects with a broad spectrum of lighting. Jonathan Deans supplies thunder and rain sound effects and successfully blends the band and vocals.
Paulus again shows her flair for guiding a complex production and getting the best from her performers. It is difficult to single out anyone, but Role maintains her character's thorny persona flawlessly and still manages to win sympathy when she reveals her back story. Matthews is an endearing guide on the journey that covers far more than the distance between New York and Uganda. Choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie has created amazing routines that fit hand in glove (foot in shoe?) with Gould's music and are the life blood of the show.
Witness Uganda has become a way of life for Matthews and Gould. They created the musical as a means of raising awareness of and funds for their nonprofit Uganda Project, but they have taken the concept in other directions. In addition to speaking and performing for church groups, the partners did a tour of schools and community groups in the Greater Boston area in October to carry the message into the community outside of the theater. Their endeavor to increase connection synergizes with Paulus' goal to make the A.R.T. more inclusive, extending the theatrical experience beyond the walls of the Loeb. If their combined efforts introduce young people to musical theater, or motivate one person to become a witness in their own community, they will be making a difference even as they are making art.
Photo credit: Gretjen HelenePhotography (Griffin Matthews and the cast of Witness Uganda)