Greek tragedy blended with Afro-American Pentecostalism
New York — The Gospel at Colonus Musical by Bob Telson (music) and Lee Breuer (book and lyrics). Directed by Mr. Breuer. Starring Morgan Freeman. Broadway playgoers are unlikely to experience a more enrapt delivery of words and music than they will encounter in ``The Gospel at Colonus.'' The performers dedicate themselves to this rich intermingling of Afro-American Pentecostalism and Greek tragedy, enhancing their music drama with an irresistible fervor and sense of commitment. The result is unique and stirring.
According to a Playbill synopsis:
```The Gospel at Colonus' reconceives Sophocles' `Oedipus at Colonus' as parable-like sermons on the ways of fate and particularly on a happy death. It is set in a black Pentecostal church. The congregation performs the invocation and, as the pastors narrate, portions of the story come to life.''
The narrative follows the main developments of the Sophoclean tragedy. Introduced by the Messenger, a visiting pastor (serenely dignified Morgan Freeman), the congregation learns how blind Oedipus (Clarence Fountain) and his daughter Antigone (Isabell Monk) reach Colonus, the ex-king's final destination in his journey of expiation for unknowing patricide and incest. The two strangers are followed in due course by Oedipus' daughter Ismene (Jevetta Steele), his ruthless son Polyneices (Kevin Davis), and King Creon (Robert Earl Jones), who briefly abducts the daughters.
At Colonus, Oedipus is befriended by Theseus (the Rev. Earl F. Miller). There, the stricken king reaches the end of his journey and ``The Gospel at Colonus'' climaxes with the sublimation toward which it has been heading. Assuring his congregation that Oedipus has found redemption, the Pastor declares: ``Indeed, his end was wonderful if mortal's ever was.''
Author-director Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson use these narrative events and poetic passages for what amounts to a music drama-cum-concert with mythic and sacred connotations. Mr. Fountain, for instance, is accompanied by the legendary Five Blind Boys of Alabama, one of several groups that elevate the proceedings with transporting vocalism.
The J.D. Steele Singers, Martin Jacox and J.J. Farley and the Soul Stirrers, and the embracing Radio Choir fill the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with a sound of music seldom heard in a Broadway playhouse. Breuer and Telson have inspired them with a score that runs the gamut of gospel music, calling for a versatility of expression that ranges from rich a cappella to a stylization that includes some astonishing vocal acrobatics. Besides the principals already mentioned, the soloists include Sam Butler Jr., Willie Rogers, Butch Heyward, and Carolyn Johnson-White. The singers are guided by the energetic Mr. Steele, and the flow of song is totally supported by the Little Village band conducted by composer-keyboardist Telson.
To visualize the environs of this cross-cultural celebration, Alison Yerxa's multi-level scenery features several imposing pillars. A central grandstand for choristers (richly robed and be-sashed by Ghretta Hynd) nestles amid painted scenes of waterfalls and a skyscape across which soar assorted mythical creatures, all bathed in Julie Archer's celestial lighting. David Hewitt and Ron Lorman designed the complex sound system.
Explaining his motivation for ``The Gospel at Colonus,'' Mr. Breuer told a New York Times interviewer: ``I wanted to translate Greek tragedy into an American language for American viewers. I wanted to show them: This is the cathartic experience, this is what Aristotle was talking about, this is what Greek tragedy is, this is what our entire dramatic culture is based on. You begin to understand catharsis by experiencing it.''
Breuer and his company of more than 60 are providing the experience at the Lunt-Fontanne. Their ``Gospel'' is based on the Robert Fitzgerald version of the Sophocles tragedy and incorporates passages from ``Oedipus Rex'' and ``Antigone'' as translated by Dudley Fitts and Fitzgerald.