Review: UNBREAKABLE performed by Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC at Lincoln Theatre

Andrew Lippa has composed a work that will live on as a time capsule of LGBTQ history and hope......

By: Jun. 07, 2022
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Review: UNBREAKABLE performed by Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC at Lincoln Theatre
Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC in Unbreakable.
Photo by Michael Key.

"You Can't Stop the Music" as the Village People say and this might have been the mission of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC (GMCW) as they sang their hearts out in esteemed composer Andrew Lippa's original work entitled Unbreakable. This East coast premiere by Mr. Lippa (composer of the musicals The Wild Party, Big Fish, and the oratorio I am Harvey Milk) was originally planned for 2020 but thanks to the "unbreakable" GMCW spirit, this fascinating work by Mr. Lippa was finally presented at the Lincoln Theatre.

The production continued the activist commitment and zeal of the GMCW as they joined their voices with Mr. Lippa's music and words. Singing a stream of fourteen songs that chronicled the seminal events, moments, and notable historical LGBTQ figures who make up Gay History and continuing up until the present time---the GMCW was disciplined and artistically captivating throughout. Momentous events in LQBTQ History such as Executive Order 10450 and the Harvard Secret Court and vital individuals such as Jane Addams, Gertrude Stein and Bayard Rustin were all explored in this invigorating and thought -provoking premiere.

The songs unspooled like movements in a symphony or arias in an opera ----although there is a book by Mr. Lippa, narrative was kept to a minimum and there were visual projections and helpful explications that explained the historical events and figures in the program. Mr. Lippa's talent shone through his lyrics and music.

The unbreakable spirit continued as face masks were worn by all the vocalists onstage and though I know this was a safety choice by those involved, the vocal tones and more subtle nuances of the voices were hard to discern at times. It was also difficult to discern the lyrics to the music and it would have been helpful to have these printed out in the program so that the audience could catch all of Mr. Lippa's writing. (During the performance I attended, the air conditioning was either not working and/or barely sustainable and large fans were installed in strategic places ---perhaps this heat was bothersome to the chorus, but they never showed it; professionalism continues to be their trademark and energy never flagged).

The opening song "Unbreakable" was delivered by Washington metropolitan area favorite, actor, and singer Nova Y. Payton, with lush power and zest. Jane Addams, the pioneer social worker and feminist, was evoked.

The song "Already Dead" was an unsettling and dramatic song that underscored the tragic story of Cyril Wilcox and the Harvard Secret Court that conducted a witch hunt against Harvard homosexuals. Joval Martin and Michael E. McGovern sang beautifully with the GMCW.

One of the most hard-hitting numbers in an evening of emotional performances was the GMCW's rendition of composer Lippa's "Executive Order" which dealt with Dwight D. Eisenhower's issuance of Executive Order 10450 in 1953. This order barred gay and lesbian Americans from being employed by the Federal Government. The repeated refrain of "long -haired men, short-haired women---get rid of them!" rang out from the chorus with the disdain of the judgmental.

The inspiring Lippa composition "All People" focused on the African American activist Bayard Rustin and his involvement with both the Civil Rights and the Gay Rights movement. Vocalist Joval Martin and the GMCW sang the phrases "All people are one" interfused with the five factors that Mr. Rustin believed influenced his life and reached the crescendo of a gospel-like fervor.

The talented soprano Amy Broadbent's lovely voice was featured several times throughout the concert, but it was particularly light and lilting in the amusing and natural "The Room Next Door". Michael E. McGovern portrayed "Lem" Billings who was gay as well as John F. Kennedy's best friend throughout his life. Mr. McGovern sang and commanded the stage with a charming ease.

The haunting and devastating "41" was a number that gained accumulative power with the full GMCW chorus singing in perfectly timed cadence: "Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed a rare form of cancer in forty-one homosexuals". At the conclusion, a man comes out, he is bathed in white light, and he places roses in an urn in remembrance of the lives lost (and the incipient horror of this piece is that we all know the enormity of what was to become the AIDS crisis-----). Lighting by Solomon HaileSelassie was evocative.

Nova Y. Payton sang with ebullient zing and sassy assertiveness in the superbly choreographed (choreography by Craig Cipollini) "Sylvia". This number was like a breath of fresh invigorating air and a tribute to a drag queen and transgender rights activist, Sylvia Rivera, who was unjustly and often derided. Mr. Lippa engaged in a series of wordplay on Rivera's persona in this song that was thrilling.

Mr. Cippolini and a swinging, jazzy and "Fosse-like" group of dancers clad in black (costume design by Sammi Miller and Jeffrey Hollands) danced with sensuous and rhythmic style. Sean Cator, James Ellzy, Jeffrey Hollands, Cole Jaconski, Darryl Pilate, and Matt Williamson danced with precision.

The closing song "Good Things Take Time" unfolded as a mixture of hope, celebration, and pride as projected images of LGBTQ figures such as Billie Jean King, Pete Buttigieg, and Presidents Obama and Biden were shown on a large screen. The LGBTQ community (of which I am a proud member) reacted with pride as befits pride month and how far we have come. (Yet, I could not help but feel a commensurate sense of melancholy at what it takes to fight the haters when you get tired and the hard reality of discrimination and the long struggle for equality rears its head. "Good things take time" but when will the time come?)

Orchestrations were by Peter Seibert and Sound Design was by Mark Klein.

Artistic Director Thea Kano conducted a fine group of instrumentalists with control and flair.

Production Director Chipper Dean and Stage Director Solomon HaileSelassie should be commended.

I hope the GMCW has archived this concert for future viewing as it is a concert that should be remembered. It is a superb concert for performance at any time of the year. Andrew Lippa has composed a work that will live on as a time capsule of LGBTQ history and hope against despair as the LQBTQ community looks to the future.

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission

Unbreakable was presented on June 4, 2022 at 8pm (with an earlier performance at 3pm) by the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC (GMCW) at the Lincoln Theatre located at 1215 U Street NW, Washington, DC. For mor information about tickets to upcoming GMCW events, click here.



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