BWW Review: JONAH Makes a Big Splash at Sight & Sound Theatre in Lancaster
In just a few hours, it's pretty easy to make the trek from our Nation's Capital to the Lancaster, PA area where Sight & Sound Theatre is putting on its latest epic musical presentation of a great Biblical story. This time around, it's Jonah. Jonah first premiered at Sight & Sound's Millennium Theatre in Ronks, PA in 2012, and returned there in March of this year. From now through October 14, visitors to the theatre can expect to be - like I was - impressed by how the creative team, its stellar cast, and some exceedingly talented technicians bring this well-known story to life on its massive stage.
Whether you - like me - had the traditional Evangelical church girl upbringing or not, you probably have heard the story of Jonah. Sight & Sound's presentation stays true to the Biblical text, but Jeff Bender (writer) fleshes out the "story" a bit more with some creative details. The story provides numerous opportunities for Director Wally Calederon to theatricalize the already powerful story in a way that's quite comparable to a big-budget Broadway musical.
So, we have Jonah. As a child, he didn't find it so easy to play with the other children so he was a bit of a loner. He developed a close relationship with God and was eager to carry out his will. This pleased Jonah's father greatly. When God first spoke to Jonah, he was elated - and so was his family. From then on, everyone in his town revered him. The prophet would have to wait awhile until the next prophecy though. When God speaks to Jonah again, the dutiful Man of God is overwhelmed with joy...that is, until he really thinks about what God is asking him to do. God wants Jonah to go to Nineveh - a powerful city filled with people who don't exactly fill Jonah's heart with warm fuzzies - and let them know that God will give them mercy if they repent for their actions. The men and women of the city are Jonah and the other Israelites' enemies. Their immoral and often violent behavior is a cause for concern, certainly, but Jonah's issues with them are much more personal. They are responsible for the death of his beloved father.
While Jonah has always wanted to do what God asks of him, he decides to run away - and not to Nineveh, more like in the other direction. As concerned family members and authority figures search for him, he journeys on foot (the donkey doesn't work out so well) and ultimately considers taking a boat to Tarsus with some drunk criminals when an opportunity arises. Jonah is deathly afraid of water, but he thinks facing his biggest fear is far better than going to Nineveh. After Jonah boards the ship, a great storm comes - a storm created by the Lord. Jonah asks the men to push him overboard so that the sea will calm down and they can be saved. He survives the fall....and ends up in the belly of a whale. His life is spared and when the whale finally spits him out, he finds himself in Nineveh. There he must make a decision to carry out his destiny and put God's will above his own.
While Christians are likely to find the story to be a source of encouragement to follow God's will no matter how crazy it might seem to us, the thematic message within the story is also likely to resonate with the broader population. Sometimes we don't always want to do what we should do, especially if it will be challenging or possibly unpleasant for a time. If we trust in what is right, the benefit of doing 'what's right' will far outweigh the temporary pain.
This compelling story - and its important message - is reason enough to see Jonah, but from a theatrical perspective, this production is a must-see for other reasons. A wonderfully talented cast of 50+ singers, actors, and dancers delivers the story and its underlying message with energy and commitment. While some of the acting is a little too 'big' for my taste, it does reach the back of the expansive theatre, and likely theatergoers of every variety - those with many shows under their belt like me, or those seeing live theatre for the first time. A lot of the singing is comparable to what you might hear in a Broadway musical or in one of our nation's best regional theatres (for locals, think Signature Theatre).
Although there are four composers associated with the production (David T. Clydesdale, Jim Dellas, Don Harper, and Steve Wilkinson), the score is quite cohesive and uniformly strong. Standout numbers like "I'm Free" and "Arise and Go" provide great ear candy equally matched by rich lyrical content. "'Cause I Know Jonah Best" provides moments of humor. These and other numbers fall quite well into the 'contemporary musical theatre' bin, while other numbers like "Song of Worship" have a classic hymn-like quality. It's a nice blend of the traditional and the modern, and Jim Dellas' orchestrations really allow all of the songs to soar as played by the excellent Prague Symphony Orchestra (recorded). As with all Sight & Sound shows, while I would have liked to see and hear a live orchestra, the huge orchestral sound the recording does offer is most welcome in an era where like, thirteen players constitute a big pit on Broadway.
Another selling point of this production is the technical creativity. The scenes taking place under the sea rival anything that Disney put together for its Broadway shows to date - and, in some aspects, exceeds that level of ingenuity (case in point: what they did here makes more of an impact than most anything Disney did for The Little Mermaid on Broadway). Without spoiling things too much, the Act Two opener is worth the price of admission alone given the impeccable blend of impressive lighting and masterful puppetry. Mammoth set pieces, especially the boat that's eventually caught in the storm, an immersive soundscape, and exceptionally detailed costumes are other technical elements of note. And lest we forget the live animals. There's even a skunk. It provides great fun.
All in all, I'd urge you to take a trip to Lancaster to get a taste of Sight & Sound for yourself.
"JONAH" runs at Sight & Sound's Millenium Theatre in Lancaster, PA through October 14, 2017. See the website for ticket information and show schedules: https://sight-sound.com/
Photo and Graphic: Courtesy of Sight & Sound Theatres