Director hopes his gospel leads back to innocence

January 27, 1992|By Mike Giuliano

IF JEZEBEL were around today, she'd be performing in a disco. At least that's where director-choreographer George Faison has employed this Old Testament vixen in a gospel musical, "Golden Gate," receiving its premiere engagement at the Lyric Opera House tomorrow to Feb. 2.

Best known for his Tony Award-winning choreography for "The Wiz" in 1975, Mr. Faison hopes this new show will encourage audiences to once again make the clear distinctions between right and wrong that he feels have become blurred in our society.

If his message is serious, though, the musical vehicle used to express it should evoke nostalgic smiles. "Golden Gate" was inspired by the male gospel quartets of the 1940s and 1950s, and while it is not a biographical treatment of groups like the Soul Stirrers, the Wings Over Jordan and the Golden Gate Quartet, it does adopt their sweetly harmonizing approach to biblical stories, according to Mr. Faison.

"I'm fascinated with the stories that the gospel songs told. In the '40s, they had a technique of bringing to life passages of the Bible for their own times. As I grow older -- not that I'm a particularly religious person -- I see how lawlessness has become commonplace, and I felt I wanted to do [a show] from a more innocent point of view in order to reinject that fear of God. I'm sentimental for that time when I felt safer and at home," the 45-year-old director-choreographer says during a phone conversation from his New York home. "That spiritual connection tends to get tattered as you get older."

In order to make the show connect with contemporary audiences, Mr. Faison says he is using "a pastiche" approach to the staging that combines music and costuming of the '40s with more current tunes and tailoring. And poems by James Weldon Johnson are being used as thematic threads between songs.

Although that's a lot of stylistic and inspirational threading for George Faison and his 17-member cast to attempt, his 20-plus years of experience should make this musical retelling of Bible stories a snap.

Besides having the honor of being the first black choreographer to win a Tony when he did "The Wiz," his numerous credits include the off-Broadway production "Apollo, Just Like Magic," the HBO film "The Josephine Baker Story," and staging concerts and music videos for the likes of Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, and Ashford and Simpson.

Considering his musical track record, it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that as a young man he planned a career not in dance but in dentistry. The Washington native even studied dentistry at Howard University before realizing he wanted to sink his teeth into something else. That something else translated to joining the American Light Opera Company and then the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, where he was a principal dancer for three years. He next founded the George Faison Universal Dance Experience and also got his first Broadway choreographic credit for "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope."

Of his long ago change in career plans, Mr. Faison now remarks: "You start out with other values and you find your way into what you're doing."

And what he's doing now, "Golden Gate," has a projected 10-week national tour in which to find its way into the hearts of gospel music audiences.

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