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The Greek Tragedy Meets Soul Inspiration

Theater review: A touring version of 'Gospel at Colonus' sets the ancient myth in a Pentecostal church with a rousing choir.

March 06, 1997|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

When Carolyn Johnson-White steps onto the stage, in her unassuming, churchgoing attire, she looses a voice so rousing that she summons not one, but two heroes back from the dead. Both heroes are Oedipus, as it happens, because the show is "Gospel at Colonus" and Oedipus is played by a singer (Clarence Fountain) and an actor (Roscoe Lee Browne, who also serves as narrator). Whatever. When a show offers gospel music and performers as glorious and plentiful as this one does, it can bring on as many Oedipuses as it pleases.

Stopping briefly this week at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, "Gospel" began life in 1983 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, had a short stint on Broadway, was taped for PBS and now continues to tour with many of its original players, including the composer, Bob Telson, on piano. The show was conceived by Telson and by Mabou Mines director Lee Breuer as a cross-pollination of cultures, a melding of Greek tragedy and its belief in preordained destiny with gospel's spiritual euphoria and redemption.

The setting is a contemporary Pentecostal service, complete with large choir in colorful robes and turbans (the L.A. Joy Choir). The avuncular minister (Browne) takes as his text the story of Oedipus coming to Colonus at the end of his life, after the shattering revelation that he married his mother and murdered his father. The congregation enacts the tale, with the Original Soul Stirrers, J.D. Steele and the Rev. Carl Williams lending their voices. Oedipus has gouged out his eyes (Fountain and his three backup singers, the Blind Boys of Alabama, wear dark glasses); he is led by his two daughters/sisters Ismene (Shari A. Seals) and Antigone (Bernadine Mitchell). He is trying to find some peace before he dies.

By combining Sophocles and gospel, the show offers a thesis on the shared values of north African, Greek and modern Western cultures. And while this thesis may have inherent drama, ideas are lost in the roof-raising music, as are the show's minimal attempts at characterization. The people on stage are archetypes: the Mourning Daughters, the Prodigal Son and the Old Man Seeking Redemption. Events have no emotional context. At one point, for instance, the daughters are led away by the evil Creon (Jay Caldwell). Nobody thinks much about it, and then they are returned. But if that event provides reason to sing a song, then praise the lord.

Clarence Fountain has the right attitude. He grins throughout, no matter how weighty the drama. After he hits a show-offy note or sustains one for an inhuman length of time, he thrusts out his hip, plops a hand on it. No matter how much concept baggage it carries, "Gospel's" real meaning lies in the pleasure of performing--this is obvious when the large choir swings side to side, delivering the joyous "Live Where You Can," or when Willie Rogers croons an ode to fair Colonus with a Sam Cooke kind of smooth, or when the rotund Martin Jacox exudes calm benevolence while his gravelly voice sounds as if it is ripped from his throat. The show is at heart a concert--which was made clear Tuesday night with the announcement that Ry Cooder would join the onstage musicians.

This touring version is in heavenly shape, though on Tuesday there was some evidence that one of the Blind Boys was operating the follow spot. Played out against a gaudy backdrop, a biblical fresco hit by a stream of unsubtle colors, the show at times grows as tedious as a sermon. But just let J.D. Steele jump up to sing "Numberless Are the World's Wonders," and you will be likely to forget all about the concepts in the world.

* "Gospel at Colonus," Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $25-$55. (800) 300-4345, (310) 916-8500. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"Gospel at Colonus"

Roscoe Lee Browne: The Messenger

Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama: Oedipus

The Rev Carl Williams: Theseus

Bernadine Mitchell: Antigone

Shari A. Seals: Ismene

Jay Caldwell: Creon

Kevin Davis: Polyneices

J.D. Steele: Director

Carolyn Johnson-White: Choir Soloist

Josie Johnson: The Acolyte

L.A.Joy: Chorus

The Original Soul Stirrers: Martin Jacox, Willie Rogers, Ben Odom, Michael Grady Choir: Choragos

Presented by Sharon Levy, Dovetail Productions. Book, original lyrics and direction Lee Breuer. Original music, adapted lyrics, music direction Bob Telson. Sets Alison Yerxa. Lights adapted by Jason Boyd from original design by Rick Paulsen. Sound Ron Lorman. Costumes based on original designs by Gretta Hynd. Production stage manager Regina S. Guggenheim.

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