'Golden Gate' dazzles with quality

THEATER

January 31, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

It's as if the heavens opened to reveal a vision: a touring gospel musical of genuine quality and high theatrical style.

The show is "Golden Gate," which is receiving its world premiere at the Lyric Opera House. And its quality is not so surprising when you discover it was conceived and staged by George W. Faison, Tony Award-winning choreographer of "The Wiz" and a former principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

A musical revue celebrating gospel styles ranging from spirituals to jazz to present-day rap, "Golden Gate" doesn't have a traditional plot. But there is a bit of running commentary concerning three potential lost souls (Carol Dennis, Alltrinna Grayson and LeRoi Simmons) who achieve salvation under the combined tutelage of a motherly true-believer (Gwen Nelson) and a close-harmony quartet, appropriately dubbed The Saints (Richard Bellazzin, Victor Cook, Ronald Grant and Tony Scales).

However, this loose story line is of far less consequence than the grace and sophistication with which the show is staged. Instead of the usual static, hokey church-like presentation, "Golden Gate" introduces such artistic touches as Adam and Eve dancing a lilting pas de deux; a discotheque of sinners dancing straight to hell in Babylon; and, in one of the subtlest and most tasteful scenes, singers and dancers using umbrellas as props -- a reference to Noah -- as they move in a sleek, sinuous modern-dance tribute to classic soft shoe.

The most stunning number is "Oasis," in which the Garden of Eden is populated by dancers sporting elaborate Ziegfeld Follies-inspired costumes and headdresses, designed by Peter Roncone. The standout is the depiction of temptation, portrayed by a dancer wearing an apple on her head and a leotard covered with foliage; entwined in the greenery is a snake whose body and head emerge as one of her sleeves.

The singing -- though over-amplified -- is uniformly top-notch. Highlights include the quartet's jazzy "Shadrack"; Nelson and Cook's "Soldier," which is stirring enough to win recruits; and Cook's rafter-raising, falsetto-tinged "Faith."

"Golden Gate" could still stand polishing. It needs a stronger first-act ending and the status of Nelson's character needs to be clarified; in the first act she seems to be a heavenly presence, but after intermission she turns out to be flesh and blood.

However, the show is already a lot closer to heaven than most of its recent predecessors. It may not have the power to save souls, but it definitely has the power to rouse them, and on opening night, more than a few rewarded it with well-deserved hosannas.

'Golden Gate'

When: tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees tomorrow and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Where: Lyric Opera House.

Tickets: $12.50-$26.50.

Call: (410) 481-6000.

***

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