The Story of David, Modern & Muddled
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
For sheer initiative, one would be hard-pressed to out-moxie David, the Old Testament hero put under a modernist musical microscope in "David in Shadow and Light." When the scheming underminer, King Saul, gives David the assignment of -- yikes! -- bringing back the foreskins of 100 Philistines, the future Jewish monarch does not merely meet the gruesome target number. He exceeds it by 100.
The sight of the young actor Matt Pearson proudly toting his bloody sack of 200 foreskins is one of the weirder incidents of this most peculiar musical, which opened Sunday night in a world premiere engagement by Theater J. The brainchild of Israeli American composer David Hoffman and American librettist Yehuda Hyman, "David in Shadow and Light" attempts to illustrate, in stylistically eclectic, semi-operatic fashion, David's evolution from precocious giant-slayer to corrupted old seducer.
For all the energy invested in a novel illumination of David, however, what unfolds on the Goldman Theater stage is a ponderous mishmash. The hitching of Hoffman's meandering, atonal music to Hyman's doggerel-reliant lyrics allots the project nothing but layers of torpor. The cardboard characters, stilted dialogue scenes and passages of recitative do little to enliven the exposition-heavy plot. Not even the sinewy choreography by acolytes of Liz Lerman can help steer the production off its turgid course.
A spectator can sense the struggle of the strong-voiced ensemble -- which includes Will Gartshore, Lawrence Redmond and Donna Migliaccio -- to imbue the evening with some intensity and coherence. But so many of the discordant choices here conspire against them. When Goliath (Russell Sunday) lopes out to face David, he sports a punk hairdo and patent-leather platform boots, an outrageous device used to better effect decades ago in the original "Jesus Christ Superstar." (Later, Goliath returns from the dead to taunt his foe with a song that includes the inexplicable refrain, "Tra la, la la, David, tra la, la la.")
Confoundingly, too, a chorus in black jumpsuits materializes from time to time to reprise a number that seems to be intended as commentary on the inevitable contradictions in the story of David: "Twenty-four frames per second of life," they sing, "an even division of shadow and light." The reference is to a movie of David's life being shown by the angel Metatron (Migliaccio) to Genesis's wheelchair-bound Adam (Norman Aronovic). Adam makes a gift to David -- originally to have died in infancy -- of 70 years of his own centuries on Earth. As David's biography plays out, Adam watches from the sidelines until the corruption of David's nature, reflected in his engineering the death of Bathsheba's husband Uriah, compels the disgusted Adam to leave the side of Metatron for good.
As if anxious to cover up the musical's flatness, director Nick Olcott crams his production with all manner of cosmetic distraction. Animal puppets are employed, as well as masks, dumb-show murders and symbolic portrayals of the afterlife, in a golden corridor representing the passageway to death. Though the biblical figures often wear robes or loincloths, they also add a layer of military uniforms of the present day. On David's wedding night, he and his bride (Carolyn Agan) enter, entwined in a piece of white fabric -- which seems somewhat artful until Pearson awkwardly tries to wriggle out of it for a quick getaway.
Pearson, an engaging presence in the recent offbeat, off-Broadway musical, "The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island," offers a fresh and earnest account here as well, even if he doesn't have much of a character to play. As histrionic Saul, Bobby Smith is given few options except to flare his nostrils and shoot his rival withering looks. Migliaccio, Gartshore and Redmond are all straitjacketed in starchy, unchallenging supporting roles.
In Misha Kachman's set design, the Goldman stage has been outfitted with a pair of large, movable white panels that are shifted to become, among other things, the rooms of Saul's and David's palaces. The panels turn into screens, too, for the projection of movement in silhouette. At these moments, "David" does manage to cast shadows, even if it doesn't shed much light.
David in Shadow and Light, music by Daniel Hoffman, libretto by Yehuda Hyman. Directed by Nick Olcott. Musical direction, George Fulginiti-Shakar; choreography, Peter DiMuro and Shula Strassfeld; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Reggie Ray; masks, Michelle Elwyn; sound, Matt Otto; puppets, Ksenya Litvak; fight director, Paul Gallagher. With Matthew Anderson and Peggy Yates. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through June 22 at DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit http:/