Rich Forum, Stamford
What a joy to find an exciting new musical on our doorsteps! And “Saint Heaven,” booked in briefly at the Rich Forum, has all the elements in place. This new piece has a first-class cast, joyous tunes, and a strong love story. Even David Korins’ whimsical set strikes the right note, with its suggestion of a wooden clapboard church in a small Kentucky town.
“Saint Heaven” plunges into the tale with a gospel-like opening of “If You Believe”/”End of the Road”/”Lift Me!” and never lets go of the audience from its opening moment. Not since “The Gospel at Colonnus” has the gospel sound worked so well in theater!
Keith Gordon, who wrote the music and lyrics, mines not only the gospel style but rhythm and blues, and country music. Yet the contemporary gospel music (sung by the estimable Stamford group, the Tabernacle of Joy Gospel Choir of the Union Baptist Church) is a strong back-up and weaves throughout the story.
The book, written by Martin Casella and based on a novel by Steve Lyons, follows the trials of one Thom Rivers, a medical intern. It is the ‘50s, and he has returned to his home town of Saint Heaven, Kentucky, for his father’s funeral. While there he falls in love with a young black woman. She in turn is the key figure in the local black church, where her seizures are seen as a gift from the Lord. There ensues the battle between the old preacher and the young intern, between faith and science, between black and white. The young black girl, suffering from epilepsy, is caught in the strife.
Characters are sharply etched, and each member of this six-character tale shines in his and her own right. Chuck Cooper, Deborah Gibson, Cheryl Alexander, Darren Ritchie, Montego Glover, and Patrick Ryan Sullivan are at the top of their professional form, as they combine acting and singing skills, guided unerringly by director Matt Lenz. Ritchie and Glover are especially appealing as the young lovers, but essentially this is an ensemble in the best sense of the word.
Granted that the show’s close is something of a let-down, as the writer struggles to determine the fate of his young lovers. The last of the plot follows a muddled, convoluted course, finally indulging in a sentimental, ambiguous ending.
Yet, all told, this is a fine new show, not to be missed in its brief Stamford stay.
-- Irene Backalenick
June 5, 2006