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'Abyssinia' Makes a Joyful Noise


Music by Ted Kociolek; lyrics by James Racheff; book by James Racheff and Ted Kociolek; based on the book, "Marked by Fire," by Joyce Carol Thomas; directed by Stafford Arima; musical direction by Michael O'Flaherty; choreographed by Todd L. Underwood; scenic design by Beowulf Boritt; costume design by Pamela Scofield; lighting design by Kirk Bookman; sound design by John A. Stone

Cast in order of appearance:

Minister, André Garner

Mother Vera, BJ Crosby

Abyssinia Jackson, Shannon Antalan

Lucas, Nathaniel Stampley

Brother Samuels, Edward M. Barker

Patience Jackson, Karole Foreman

Selma, NaTasha Yvette Williams

Corine, Q. Smith

Mavis, Angela Karol Grovey

Lily, Lisa Nicole Wilkerson

Trembling Sally, Uzo Aduba

Marcus, Derrick Cobey

Leon, Darius Nichols

Jesse, Eric LaJuan Summers

Performances: Now through September 11

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The North Shore Music Theatre has come back from the abyss of a devastating July 14 fire that destroyed the interior of its Beverly, Mass., theater-in-the-round with a thrilling production of the spiritual musical "Abyssinia" directed by Stafford Arima. The show, an inspirational story about faith and redemption filled with rousing gospel, folk, and ragtime music, is being presented now through September 11 at the Shubert Theatre in Boston by special arrangement with the Wang Center for Performing Arts. On September 30 the show moves to Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., for a five-week run through December 4.

Arima, fresh from his critically acclaimed direction of Ahrens and Flaherty's musical "Ragtime" at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, has instilled his outstanding ensemble of 16 powerhouse singers and actors with a vitality that is so infectious that several times during the opening night performance audience members joined in exuberant rhythmic applause. The cast's unabashed belief in the songs they offer as uplifting (and hair-raising) prayer makes us believe, too, that it's possible for Mother Vera, the congregation's healer of bodies and souls, to divert a tornado from its path and save the newborn Abyssinia and her mother. We believe that the magnificent voice of the teenaged Abyssinia is a sign that she is indeed blessed with special gifts from God. We also believe that this community of sharecroppers will do as the opening number proclaims – "Rise and Fly" – no matter what disaster, manmade or natural, happens to befall them.

The story of "Abyssinia" Jackson pivots on the innocent joy followed by unbearable sorrow of the title character, played with freshness and truth by Shannon Antalan, whose unquestionable faith in God – and in her own ability to create glorious music – is shattered when she suffers two devastating personal tragedies almost simultaneously. While she wallows in anger and grief, her extended community of spiritual mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers – led by the perfectly subtle and complex BJ Crosby as the wise, witty, and somewhat wizened Mother Vera and Karole Foreman as the ever constant birth mother Patience Jackson – try to lift her disillusioned heart and heal her aching soul. Only Trembling Sally, an embittered widow whose three children were lost in the very same tornado that spared Abyssinia and her family, gets pleasure from the inconsolable girl's pain.

As Sally, Uzo Aduba gives a chilling performance. She is at once ominous as the symbolic force of evil that lives in unforgiving souls and sympathetic as the anguished mother who attempts to connect with Abyssinia by sharing the bonds of hatred and pain. She looms menacingly as she sings the haunting "Blackberry Wine," then almost soothes as she seduces with the doleful "Ten Little Children."

In contrast to the darker moments wrought by Trembling Sally, there are delightful moments, too, spread by Crosby's Mother Vera and a trio of busy bodies, Selma, Corine and Mavis, played with great spit and vinegar by NaTasha Yvette Williams, Q. Smith and Angela Karol Grovey. In the simple yet profound folk song, "Recipe," whose jaunty lyrics include "Just 'cause you got the recipe don't mean you got the cake," and the solemn yet thought-provoking "Honey and Lemon," a powerful ballad about taking the bitter with the sweet, Crosby croons loving lessons to Antalan's adoring Abyssinia. In the rollicking gospel number "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan," Williams, Smith and Grovey sing with such force and humor that no demon would dare darken their door – or any door, for that matter, within their congregation's continguous communities.

Both Racheff and Kociolek's book and score are rich in surprisingly clever words of faith and moving songs of fortitude. Too serious a directorial hand or overly zealous religious interpretation could render "Abyssinia's" homespun folk wisdom as trite and preachy. Under Arima's skillful staging and Todd L. Underwood's equally deft choreography, however, the performances in this NSMT production are all kinetic and truthful. During the celebratory "Ragtime Promenade" in which parishioners are enjoying a carefree church social, the ensemble moves collectively as a united body yet each character still expresses his or her own individual personality by making unique movements and seemingly improvisational gestures. In rousing spirituals like the jubilant "Lift Up Your Voice" and the Act II revivalist opener "Pick Up the Pieces," the ensemble led by the very charismatic André Garner as the Minister makes it almost impossible for spectators to remain silent or immobile.

Arima and the entire design team have taken full advantage of the Shubert Theatre's proscenium stage to create a natural setting that transforms from cotton field to outdoor church to rustic kitchen to wooded glen. When the tornado hits, the upstage scrim turns a perfect shade of green to represent the murky cloudiness of the turbulent sky, and sound effects are so real that the wind truly seems to howl and seats actually seem to shake. Very few adjustments are likely to be needed when the show makes its way to the Goodspeed.

While the fire that gutted the North Shore Music Theatre nearly erased its 50th anniversary season, as well, providence has intervened and created a brand new opportunity for Beverly's highly regarded artistic and educational institution. Its temporary home on Tremont Street in Boston ("Camelot" will also play at the Shubert from September 20 through October 9) has enabled a brand new audience of theatergoers to experience the consistently solid work presented by the largest non-profit producing theater in New England.

Just as "Abyssinia" rises from the ashes of her own personal tragedy and learns to sing once more, the North Shore Music Theatre has picked up the pieces and is lifting its voice again, too. In each case the message of faith and hope comes across loud and clear. For anyone who may be questioning, in the wake of Katrina, why terrible things have to happen, the joyful noise of NSMT's "Abyssinia" could be the very tonic that is needed.

Photos by Paul Lyden

1. Shannon Antalan as Abyssinia learns the recipe for success from BJ Crosby as Mother Vera.

2. Uzo Aduba is the troubled soul Trembling Sally.

3. Angela Karol Grovey (Mavis), Q. Smith (Corine) and NaTasha Yvette Williams (Selma) show no fear as they perform "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan."



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