Jonestown, The Musical
nytheatre.com review by Riley MacLeod
August 15, 2004
Writing about religion is never easy, especially when the religion one is writing about is the mystery of the Peoples’ Temple, a devoted group of followers of the Reverend Jim Jones who committed a mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. Yet it is this mess of unanswered questions and divided loyalties that Jonestown: The Musical boldly attempts to take on.
Written by Brian Silliman and Larry Lees, Jonestown: The Musical is, at the outset, your usual musical. Matt Cavenaugh does an exceptional job as protagonist Samuel Foreman, a lost young man selected to be Reverend Jones’ lieutenant. His charismatic stage presence and effortless voice bring depth and vitality to his role. His performance is complemented by the powerful voice and unabashed performance of J. Mark McVey as Jones. These two actors portray the fascinating relationship between Jones and Samuel, culminating in Samuel giving the order to the rest of the followers to drink the cyanide-spiked Kool-Aid which ends their lives.
Robert Creighton is energetic and exciting as Congressman Leo Ryan, whose assassination during his visit to Jonestown prompted the suicide of 913 of the Temple’s 1100 members. Backed up by his assistant Hedge (Howard Emanuel) and reporter Bill Ship (Neal Young), Ryan is aware that he is in a musical and acts accordingly. But as he hits the high notes and kick-dances his way through deception, brainwashing, and eventual murder, I could only ask myself: should I be laughing at this? Ryan and company are a bit daft straight through to the end, easily duped by the transparent lies of Jones’ followers. They are hilariously clueless, but also unbelievably so, and there were moments when I wondered if we had crossed the line from humor into sacrilege. I admire efforts to walk that line, but I know it should be walked carefully.
As a musical comedy, Jonestown succeeds. Though the lyrics are occasionally simple and the character development and motivation are a bit weak, the show is engaging and fun. Serious numbers such as “I Remember” and “What He’s Done” are offset by exuberant comedic gems like “Church and State” and “Don’t Mess with the USA.” The book is witty, the music singable, and the musicians highly talented.
I left the theatre humming the music but feeling uneasy. The hurt and love in Samuel’s eyes as he follows doggedly in Jones’ footsteps are fascinating and, to me, the true heart of the Jonestown tragedy. I came in assuming Jonestown was a comedy, but along the way serious issues of religion, belonging, and responsibility were spiked into the mix. Jonestown skips along the surface of Jonestown, a subject which I believe it is impossible to do justice to without going in-depth. I went home full of questions that the show perhaps unintentionally raised and spent the next three days wondering what I would have done in such a situation. It’s easy to make caricatures out of the Peoples’ Temple followers, but I believe it is vital that we realize that they were living people, people who were seeking something that many of them found. Efforts to create humor out of such a tragedy are brave and most welcome, but they need to be done with the appropriate depth and respect.