BWW Review: MASS a Towering Achievement That Soars, Lifts and Inspires
MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers, is a musical theatre piece composed by Leonard Bernstein with additional lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and Paul Simon. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, it premiered on September 8, 1971. Bernstein originally intended to compose a traditional Mass, but eventually settled on this more innovative form. It uses the Tridentine Mass of the Roman Catholic Church as its basis. While the liturgical passages are sung in Latin, MASS also includes added passages in English written by Bernstein, composer Stephen Schwartz, and Paul Simon (who wrote the first quatrain of "Half of the People"). Intended to be staged theatrically, it has also been performed in concert format. This production has the added bonus of subtitling above the stage, although it really isn't necessary.
MASS was written out of the desire to give hope and provide healing after a decade of war and national division, and as a way to deal with Kennedy's assassination. MASS takes the audience, through the character of The Celebrant, sung in this production by Jubilant Sykes, on a journey from despair to inspiration as he searches for renewal and inner peace. In MASS, Bernstein has created a celebration of music's unique ability to unite and comfort.
This glorious Austin production assembles a truly global mix of styles, talents, and voices. The MASS company includes Choir 48 of the African Children's Choir, Austin Children's Choir, Austin Symphony Orchestra, Bernstein100Austin Youth Chorus, Chorus Austin, Conspirare, Jubliant Sykes, Members of Austin Opera, Members of Ballet Austin, Members of the UT Wind Ensemble, Chisholm Trail Middle School, Mitch Watkins, and Panoramic Voices, all conducted by Austin Symphony Orchestra's Peter Bay.
The cast consists of the Celebrant, three choirs, and altar servers. A full classical orchestra performs in the pit, while onstage musicians, which include a rock band and a marching band appears and performs in the aisles. The Celebrant (Jubilant Sykes) is the central character of the work, a Catholic priest who conducts the celebration of the Mass. The Formal Choir is a mixed choir and sings the Latin sections of the Mass. The children's choir performs alone or with the Formal Choir and the Street Singers. The Street Singers perform around the Celebrant and in the pews representing the congregation. They participate in the prayers of the Mass, and at times, counter those prayers in a modern context. The Acolytes function as Assistants to the Celebrant, performing the majority of the choreography and perform altar assistance throughout the MASS.
The piece begins in harmony and agreement. Soon, however, the street choir begins questioning the necessity of God in their lives and the role of the Mass. A growing cacophony of complaining finally interrupts the celebrant, who, in a rage, hurls the sacremental chalice of wine to the floor. This sacrilege causes the other cast members to collapse to the ground as if dead while the Celebrant sings a solo that blends the chorus's disbelief with his realization that he feels worn out and wonders where the strength of his original faith has gone. It is from this moment that the healing and restoration of faith begins until they finally "Sing God a Secret Song".
Everything about this production works beautifully. Peter Bay conducts with a deft hand and his love for the piece is apparent by the way the music soars. Josh Miller has staged this work so it is set in a physical church space, which surprisingly works to free the work rather than constrict it. His staging is full of gorgeously constructed stage pictures and he has created lovely moments of connection amongst the chorus members. Jennifer Hart's choreography is wonderful, both inventive, lyrical and full of deeper meaning.
Michael Krauss has created a stunning church setting with a back wall full of stained glass. Toni Tucci has lit the proceedings so that the stained glass changes colors and tones on a note to astonishing effect. Barbara Pope has created a remarkable palette of costumes that clearly delineate characters before they sing, cluing us in to their beliefs and attitudes purely through design.
The performances, however, are the driving force of any production of MASS and this landmark production is blessed with amazing voices and performances. What makes this production so remarkable is that everyone is singing and acting simultaneously, making for rich and nuanced performances. Key among these is Jubilant Sykes as The Celebrant. Sykes clearly understands the character and is more than successful at communicating the mental turmoil of the central figure. His performance is frankly revelatory. Jacob Baird's crystal clear boy soprano voice is the perfect counterpoint to The Celebrant.
The evening is filled with so many remarkable performances that pointing them all out would be impossible. However, especially when it comes to the Street Chorus, a few are worthy of special mention: Mela Dailey, Matt Alber, Jamie Van Eyck Beceiro, Liz Cass, Dann Coakwell, Tynan Davis, Charles Wesley Evans, Laura Mercado -Wright, John Proft, and Keely Rhodes all had moments where they shined.
In short, this landmark "Texas Sized" (over 250 performers, the most ever used to stage this) production of MASS is a glorious achievement. It soars, it inspires and it lifts the spirit. Arguably Bernstein's masterpiece, MASS is a towering achievement and something those of us who saw it will be talking about for decades to come. Chances are slim this work will receive another mounting here, or even close by. Come get lifted and renewed while you can.
MASS by Leonard Bernstein with text by Bernstein and additional text and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and Paul Simon.
Conducted by Peter Bay, Directed by Josh Miller, Choreography by Jennifer Hart
Running Time: One Hour and Forty Eight minutes. No intermission.
MASS produced by Merick Strategies for Bernstein At 100 at the Long Center (701 West Riverside Drive, Austin, TX, 78704) in Dell Hall.
Friday-Saturday, June 29 - June 30, 2018 @ 8 PM
Tickets are available for the June 29-30, 2018 performances of "MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers" at www.thelongcenter.org.