Pablo Picasso once said, “You don’t make great art, you find it” and as an artist, I know how difficult the creative process can be. I applaud every artist who has the courage to share their gifts with the world, which is what Monolodge is all about: giving actors a vehicle to share their gifts and help them “find it”. Festivals are also vehicles for helping great artists “find it” with their art. Within the 2014 NYC Thespis Festival, the ambitious Song of Solomon a New Musical, by composer Andrew Beall and lyricist Neil Van Leeuwen, begins. Director Luis Salgado helps nurture this new musical and gives it the size that the music calls for. Staged at the Actors Temple Theatre, which gives the space a long aisle, Salgado made great use of this long space in the blocking, especially in the transitions. This musical shares the epic style of Les Miz, but in the world of Ancient Israel and King Solomon.
The musical is about Solomon’s secret romance with a young servant girl, Almah, but with the stakes of Israel on the line, this is no simple romance. We begin with King Solomon being petitioned by Leah and Dina, who are fighting over a child that one of them stole. Leah, played by Danicah Waldo, battles vocally with the powerhouse Shannen Rae, playing Dina. Leah’s voice, though not as thunderous, is a smooth tone filled with honesty and inner strength that Solomon tests by offering to cut the baby in two. Leah is the true mother, who would rather Dina take the baby than die, Solomon wisely sees. Evan McCormack plays King Solomon as grounded, open king, his performance is nuanced, conflicted, and draws you in. Almah, a looker on in this trial, however, draws in King Solomon. The luminous Ann McCormack, a larkish soprano and another incredibly open performer, plays Almah. They are attracted to each other and that’s how the trouble starts.
Though introduced in a very quick interlude, Casey Manning, who plays Benjamin, commands attention and not just due to his height, but his talent. His voice and his acting is rooted in truth and he makes a character that makes a lot of “bad” decisions, seem like a genuinely good person. Benjamin starts as a sincere supporter of Solomon, but is corrupted over the course of the musical. With Manning’s performance, we see how this happens gradually, how Benjamin truly believes he’s helping Solomon even when he does shady things to insure things are going politically well for Israel. At the beginning, I thought he was Benvolio to Solomon’s Romeo, we get no hint of his betrayals in his acting, he lets the brilliant composition reveal the hints of his corruption.
While Benjamin starts out as a good person, Ruben, played by Jonathan D. Morales is extravagantly evil from the get go (though later we see beneath this wall). He has an extremely disturbing scene where he tries to rape Almah, and when caught accuses her of adultery and starts to get the crowd to stone her. Personally, I love a good disturbing scene that gives you chills, I think it’s important to view and deal with horrible realities on stage; it leaves the audience something very visceral to think about. Stoning still happens in this world, as The Stoning of Soroya M. a very disturbing movie as you can tell from the title, and to see it on stage even without the stones was a powerful artistic moment, heightened by the ensemble’s callous lyrics in “Bring in the Stones”.
The highlight of the production was the music, especially the song “Stand Up Israel”. In this song, it resonates more than just in the context of the show, but with such a power I could see it sung in Israel today. Besides the composers, vocal director Charlie Willis and Musical Director Eugene Gwozdz are showcased in this song when the music drops and the large ensemble keeps time and tight harmonies as the audience gets chills. The band is multi-talented, Eugene Gwozdz plays piano as well, Steve Moran on bass, and Artie Dibble both conducts and plays violin in the show. The two percussion players, Mariana Ramirez and Jeremy Smith, rock out, making the dance songs “Dance of the Temple! (Part I and II)” songs I would definitely add to my musical theatre work out songs next to “Dance of the Robe” from Aida. Another favorite song was “Dance of the Fools/Seduction”, where Nadia, played by the effortlessly slinky Rocio Lopez, and other of Solomon’s wives seduce Benjamin and other palace men. The Prophet Nathan, played with easy vocal strength by Levin Valayil tries to prevent corruption of Israel by these wives, who also are introducing their forbidden gods to the palace while Solomon is away .The last song I will mention, without giving too much away, is “Stand Up Israel (Reprise)/Final Confrontation”. The reprise is very different from the first “Stand Up Israel” and shows Solomon’s inner life as it is softly sung this time. The confrontation between Solomon and Benjamin is a Javert and Jean Valjean type confrontation, and is cleverly written, wonderfully executed, and very satisfying to listen and watch as an audience member.
The baby from the first scene in the first act grows into a child by the second act: Maya, played by Alessandra Baldacchino. Besides being very cute, this young lady showcases her talent and hard work, ending the play with a very moving monologue about Israel. In her innocent face, we see a new era beginning in Israel, as the entire ensemble looks on. Props to this ensemble, who helped establish everywhere we were and supported all these characters. Congratulations to all the cast and crew on a successful world premiere of Song of Solomon!
Visit solomonthemusical.com or salgadoproductions.com for more info.
Contributed exclusively for MONOLODGE by Nikomeh Anderson