`Spirit' drums up emotion, not clarity

November 04, 1999|By Jane Murray | Jane Murray,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Launched as a spiritual awakening to our American Indian heritage, "Spirit: A Journey in Dance, Drums and Song" at the Lyric Opera House seems an ambitious attempt to meld historical American Indian song and dance with today's rock music scene.

Or maybe to reinvent the hugely successful "Riverdance" with an American beat.

The result is an often-entertaining, if forced, culture-hopping combination of haunting inspirational material, storytelling and electronically powered fare.

The story is told in eight musical segments that segue with loud flourishes but lack clear development. The opening scene introduces Everyman, Angelo Fraboni, fed up with urban life and climbing the corporate ladder. Suddenly, an Indian appears, offering him a feather. Sparked by this gesture, or the furious beat of the drums, he rips off his shirt and begins his search for a spiritual identity. His co-workers, no mean movers, join in the fancy leaps and acrobatics.

The pulse of the show is continuous, powerful drumming pounding out rhythms that ignite the action. However, there is less sweep than manipulation in the choreography of Wayne Cilento. The production suffers when trying to match authenticity to a rock beat. Take, for example, an episode in which beasts from the forest attack the puzzled Everyman and his crew. The men's physicality and muscular force are barely engaged in the darkly lit struggle. More successful, although frankly baffling, is Cilento's cheeky juxtaposing of scantily clad maidens seductively luring our seeker of truth to what promises to be a less-than-salutary conclusion. Fraboni's obvious talents are sadly wasted until a brief passage of falls, twists and wild jumps pronounces his spiritual awakening.

The artistic team is no newcomer. Composer Peter Buffett's lifelong devotion to early Indian history led him to conceive the score as a CD, develop it for a PBS special and, working with Chief Hawk Pope and choreographer Cilento, to bring it to the stage.

Pope, a principal chief of the Shawnee Nation, is a singer-drummer who served as unit director of music and a vocalist for Walt Disney's animated film "Pocahontas." Cilento's long list of credits includes a Tony Award for best choreography for "The Who's `Tommy.' " Clearly these men know their way around multicultural and commercial theater.

And the production is vividly designed, with Virginia Webster's gorgeously feathered Indian costumes and slyly sexy modern dress mingling history with changing fashions.

Still, featured Native American flutist, vocalist and percussionist Robert Mirabal is at times lost in the general hubbub of the score. Indeed, all the dancers and musicians are, judging from their program credits, well able to deliver better performances than are demanded of them here. The spirit is willing, but the opportunities, the choreographic vision and direction are limited.

`Spirit'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. today-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; 7: 30 p.m. Sunday; through Sunday

Tickets: $15-$49, available from Lyric box office and TicketMaster locations

Call: 410-481-SEAT or 410-752-1200

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