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Spirited 'Jezebel' Moves in Many Divine Ways

March 14, 1997|PHILIP BRANDES

"Jezebel" at the Vision Theater brings quality theater to Leimert Park with a vengeance--a divine vengeance, you might say.

An original musical dramatization inspired by the biblical tale of the carpetbagging hussy who imposed her false religion on the Israelites, this groundbreaking, self-styled "Gospel opera" succeeds in every sense of the term. Its blend of gospel, R&B, spirituals, torch songs and other popular musical genres not only makes for distinctive numbers, but also proves well-suited to the recitative passages in an all-song format.

Composed by Joe Westmoreland and Charles May under the auspices of the First American Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, the piece handsomely treads the line between preaching and entertainment. Don't look for subtly shaded characters and moral ambiguity--the overriding aesthetic is that of the passion play, with its broad strokes and clearly defined heroes and villains.

Presiding over the latter, of course, is the Phoenician temptress Jezebel, who becomes Queen of Israel by marriage. She's played with feisty, unrepentant glee by the aptly named Windy Barnes, whose remarkable singing range and good-humored sex appeal steal her every scene.

As her chief opponent, the Prophet Elijah, the Rev. Daryl Coley proves just as capable, augmenting his signature gospel vocal style with affecting depth of character. Though Elijah never openly questions his God, Coley's sorrowful expression at the death of a child speaks volumes of silent doubt. Another nice touch is his amusement at the antics of the Baal worshipers. This being the Old Testament, though, Elijah's wrath is merciless in consigning them to harsh punishment and ensuring Jezebel's reign goes to the dogs.

Coley and Barnes make such lively antagonists that it's too bad there aren't more scenes between them. Also problematic is that the musical momentum is hard to sustain through 43 songs; some judicious trimming is in order.

Nevertheless, Tony winner Delores Hall, Erica Atkins, John R. Jackson and Tracy Coley lend strong vocal support to the score. Director-choreographer Stephen Semien smoothly integrates the talents of professionals with volunteer performers in his 43-member ensemble and 25-piece offstage choir.

And there's icing on the cake--proceeds from the production will also benefit the Los Angeles Cecil L. Murray Education Center. Everybody wins in a production that brings first-rate theater to an underserved community.

* "Jezebel," Vision Theater, 3341 W. 43rd Place, Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends March 30. $20. (213) 295-9685. Running time: 3 hours.

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