Entire Cast & Bulk of Production Crew in Pittsburgh Opera Debuts, Deliver Powerful Drama Set to Riveting Music
By George B. Parous
First things first – try to get tickets to Pittsburgh Opera’s We Shall Not Be Moved while they’re still to be had. The advance sale for the run is looking good, but some of the remaining performances are filling fast, and you want to make sure you catch this one while you can, even though the August Wilson African American Cultural Center’s auditorium has a fairly large seating capacity. The show has received a great deal of advance publicity; we won’t attempt to describe the plot beyond what’s already been released, because there are always spoiler alerts with a new – opera? It has operatic elements, to be sure, but last evening, Daniel Bernard Roumain’s music and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s libretto struck more as a mixture of musical theater/drama that uses classically trained voices for a number of the roles. The music wafting from the pit, conducted by Viswa Subbaraman, is operatic in places, but it’s more a mixture, as advertised, of spoken word, contemporary movement, R&B and jazz, sung by a cast with operatic voices to flood over the audience when needed – and what voices!
Tony Award-winner and Kennedy Center Honoree Bill T. Jones’ direction and choreography is downright amazing, and keeps the show in almost constant motion, with lots of help from Matt Saunders’ scenery, Robert Wierzel’s lighting, Jorge Cousineau’s projections – the entire production team has done a great job of making We Shall Not Be Moved a treat for the eye while the cast takes care of the ear (although they did their parts for the eye as well).
Un/Sung (Alexa Patrick, back left) and her brothers (left to right) John Little (Chance Jonas-O’Toole), John Mack (Adam Richardson), John Blue (John Holiday), and John Henry (Ron Dukes)
As to the plot, as stated, we’re sticking with what’s already been said by Pittsburgh Opera itself: “On the run after a series of tragic incidents, five North Philadelphia teens find refuge in an abandoned, condemned house in West Philadelphia at the exact location that served as headquarters of the MOVE organization, where a 1985 standoff with police infamously ended with a neighborhood destroyed and 11 people dead, including five children. This self-defined family is assuaged and even inspired by the ghosts who inhabit this home and begin to see their squatting as a matter of destiny and resistance rather than urgent fear.” You can check out the full synopsis at the Pittsburgh Opera website if you like spoilers.
Many in the audience probably went home humming a tune or two – the music is contagious and Viswa Subbaraman kept the music wafting from the orchestra pit as engaging and memorable as possible. The orchestration is light – the basic violin (Rachel Stegeman), viola (Jennifer Gerhard), cello (Kathleen Melucci), percussion (Jan Fung), piano (James Lesniak) – and the not-so-basic, for opera, at least, bass/electric bass (Jeffrey T. Mangone, Sr.) and drum set (Jimmy Coleman), but these instrumentalists did a magnificent job with the beat and rhythm which was so integral to the brilliance of the performance.
The Family with the OGs
Ron Dukes, with a powerfully resonant and rich bass voice (and an extensive operatic resume) gave an outstanding performance of the character John Henry, and laid wounded on the stage through the entire intermission like a seasoned trooper. Countertenor John Holiday, who played the role of John Blue, while new to Pittsburgh Opera, we remembered well from Quantum Theatre’s Idaspe last fall. His entrancing voice was in fine condition last night, and his acting was vital, engaging.
Adam Richardson, who sang and acted the role of John Mack, is a young baritone with operatic, concert and theater experience. His rich, mellow tones and striking stage presence were a decided feature of the performance. John Little was acted and sung by the young tenor Chance Jonas-O’Toole. His voice has a ringing quality that makes wanting to hear him in a standard operatic role a curiosity, and he acted the part intensely. Alexa Patrick had the unusual role with the unusual name of Un/Sung. She is a gifted actress and speaker – she sang a few passages as well – and delivered an engaging performance.
Un/Sung (Alexa Patrick) and Glenda (Kirstin Chávez)
The always in evidence “ghosts,” mysteriously known as the OG’s, were a remarkable group of dancers named Indira Cunningham, Ira Cambric III, Ethan Gwynn and Simon Phillips. They navigated with grace and urgency throughout the performance of an intricate series of interpretative dances. Their movements were so well choreographed that they never detracted from the singers. They belonged, they were integral, and how they managed to go through their paces without a hitch was nothing short of astonishing.
Last, certainly not least, was Kirstin Chávez, mezzo-soprano, in the role of Glenda, the police officer. Her role is a complex study in “blue,” marvelously acted and sung in the rich, velvety tones of a Carmen (a role she’s sung often), but she sings anything but carefree arias of fickle passion. She has made a deep study, it would seem, of the role’s possibilities, and we see some of them in her facial expressions, or in her posturing – body language – and we hear all of them in her voice, a lovely, smokey voice. It’s a mystery as to why we are just hearing the lady, but she’ll be here a while longer, so don’t miss her if you’re a connoisseur of the voice type. Yes, it’s my favorite.
Glenda (Kirstin Chávez)
This is truly an event in Pittsburgh Opera’s recent history that shouldn’t be missed. The subject matter almost defies entertainment, but this work of art tastefully and thoughtfully draws attention to a critical social issue that, unfortunately, covers centuries to the present day. You can read all about it, get the full production details, and reserve tickets, at Pittsburgh Opera.
The Artistic Team for We Shall Not Be Moved –
Conductor, Viswa Subbaraman; Stage Director/Choreographer, Bill T. Jones; Scenery Designed by Matt Saunders; Costumes Designed by Liz Prince; Lighting Designed by Robert Wierzel; Projections Designed by Jorge Cousineau; Sound Designed by Robert Kaplowitz; Hair & Make-up Designed by Izear Winfrey; Lighting Director, Todd Nonn; Stage Manager, Robert Klein; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Stage Director, Seth Hoff; Assistant Choreographer, Raphael Xavier; Fight Director, Attack Theatre/Peter Kope
David Bachman Photography