Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam
“Abyssinia,” the all-black musical now at Goodspeed, is a sweet, old-fashioned show. Set supposedly in Oklahoma, it is really a Never-never-land through which the players romp as they belt out gospel tunes and yearning ballads.
The story unfolds in a black rural community at turn of the century. But we doubt that black people in Oklahoma ever had it this good. The characters are always nicely dressed, never threatened by white racists, and spend a good deal of time spreading out goodies for church suppers. Gritty reality does not mar this charming picture.
We are asked to believe that Lucas, his wife Patience, and their daughter Abyssinia do go through rough times as the crops fail. Granted there are floods, deaths and rapes. And the delectable Abyssinia does endure pain and suffering, faith and redemption, before she emerges on the sunny side, singing her way through Ted Kociolek’s music and James Racheff’s lyrics. But it is difficult to take these setbacks seriously. “Abyssinia” does not have the pervasive darkness or the convincing cultural milieu which can add richness to a musical.
No matter. “Abyssinia” is what it is—darned good entertainment. Under Stafford Arima’s facile direction, Michael O’Flaherty’s musical direction, and Todd L. Underwood’s impeccable choreography, “Abyssinia” is a joy to behold and to hear. There is never a false step, as the cast moves through large company numbers and smaller scenes. The music shows considerable variety, with ballads, gospel pieces and even ragtime tunes (the delightful “Ragtime Promenade” at the church social). Moreover, the design work (Beowulf Boritt’s sets and Kirk Bookman’s lighting) further enhances the package.
Fine performances are forthcoming from this entire cast. Shannon Antalan, in the title role, is a delicious ingénue, a ripe little plum ready for the picking. One wishes she had a stronger, richer voice for the role, but her looks and performance compensate. Quentin Earl Darrington as Lucas gives a powerful, moving performance, and others worthy of note include: BJ Crosby (Mother Vera), Andre Garner (Minister), Karole Foreman (Patience), Uzo Aduba (Trembling Sally), and Lisa Nicole Wilkerson (Lily). And the trio of NaTasha Yvette Williams, Q. Smith and Angela Karol Grovey offer up delightful moments of comedy and song.
In all, Goodspeed comes through once more with solid escapist entertainment—happily supplemented, at intermission, with drinks on the patio overlooking the Connecticut River. A lovely time to catch the fall foliage and the “Abyssinia” cast.
-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 16, 2005