Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done
nytheatre.com review by Reagan Wilson
September 22, 2007
Walter Robinson, acclaimed lyricist of the children's song "Harriet Tubman," has taken his love of music and knowledge of the history of African American slavery and turned out a musical. Look What a Wonder Jesus Has Done just may be the little musical that could go beyond the festival circuit.
The story is that of Denmark Vesey (played by the very talented Horace V. Rogers), a freed slave who co-founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816 and planned what would have been one of the largest slave revolts in American history. In Robinson's version, Vesey not only has to build a church and plan a revolt, he also has to buy his wife and kids from Col. John Benton Moore (played by David Andrew Anderson), who unlike most slave owners is not looking to sell his property due to his love for Vesey's wife. Let's put Moore's love on hold for a second and look at what I loved about this show.
Robinson for one is someone to love. You've got to admire a guy who takes on the challenge of writing the music, book, and lyrics of a gospel play with a cast of 19. Robinson's love of the child's voice is shown through the numerous songs sung by Chloe Vesey and Prosser Vesey, played by the charming eight year old Tamara Robinson and the young CJ Palma. Robinson's skill with ensemble numbers is evident with numbers like "Dreams Come True," "The Slave Ship/This Great Army," and "Brave and Strong" (note: "Brave and Strong" received an uproar of applause from the audience). There are also the strong and well-trained voices of Rogers and various ensemble members to appreciate. Add a spirited ensemble, a well-crafted set designed by Lara Fabian, accompaniment by Alex Lacamoire, and the wand of director Hilary Adams, and what you have is a very nice production in the NYMF.
What you don't have is a great production. Alas, Robinson's decision to do it all on this production is also one of the show's weaknesses. The story of Col. Moore's infatuation with Rose Vesey is all but abandoned during the first six numbers and Anderson is given nothing in the script to show us why in the dickens he's so smitten with this woman. The relationship between Vesey's wife and Col. Moore is so intrinsic to the tale that it's a shame you don't see more of his infatuation developing. Col. Moore comes across as a lovesick puppy that for some silly reason lets the one woman he loves go to visit her husband at church every Sunday.
Songs, delivered in counterpoint, with the whites vs. the blacks, are very hard to understand, due to too much overlapping; and children's numbers are barely audible. "After This Night," "Feels Like God Wants Me to Die," and "Where's Daddy Gone," delivered by the shows youngest cast members, are adorable, but banking on cuteness doesn't always pay off. It's as if Robinson hadn't considered the age of his talent and the development of the voice at such a young age. Both young actors handle the challenging songs like pros, but each song would have made its point within half the time.
If the packed house and half standing ovation is any indication that this show can go further, then surely it's on the right track. With some revisions to both script and score, you might just see this production graduate from the NYMF and grow to rival other well-known gospel theatre productions.