It’s not just that rich voices lift heavenward in WSC Avant Bard’s fine new staging of “The Gospel at Colonus.” It’s the elegance, the ceremony — the lofty mix of Greek drama, with all its grim fate, and the redemption of choral music meant to jolt you joyously out of your seat.
Jennifer L. Nelson’s lively, pocket-size production is smartly tailored for the small Theater II in the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington. The audience is only a couple of rows deep, arranged in a semicircle around a stage that looks like an ancient outcropping of rock. Propelled by musical director/keyboardist e’Marcus Harper-Short and percussionist Abdou “CleanHandz” Muhammad, the singers perform mostly without microphones. The soulful, thoughtful performances fill the room beautifully.
“The Gospel at Colonus” was a 1980s phenomenon engineered by Mabou Mines ringleader Lee Breuer, who brought his prestige hit from New York to Arena Stage in 1984 with a cast (hold your breath) of 57 that included Morgan Freeman. “Rarely has the stage appeared so full,” a Post critic wrote at the time.
Nelson’s production is big for its stage, too: The cast of 10 is augmented by seven singers of minister Becky Mays Jenkins’s Women’s Ecumenical Choir. The grace of the show, though, is that it never feels swollen or pushy. It’s as dignified as church, even when it raises the roof.
Oedipus is already blind and staggering toward death in Sophocles’ later play “Oedipus at Colonus,” and the musical adaptation divides the tragic character in half. The balanced mirror images are William T. Newman Jr. as Preacher Oedipus and DeMone as Singer Oedipus, each performing with philosophical gravity. Newman brings a deep, reflective sense and rumbling tones to his role as the preacher, while DeMone’s singing draws notes of pain and hope in long, soft phrases and impassioned outbursts.
Nelson’s show looks as good as it sounds. Danielle Preston’s costumes are snappy suits for the men accented with African-themed sashes or hats, while the women get bright, timeless-looking gowns that nod toward ancient Greece. Sandra Holloway’s dances glide nicely across the small stage — no clutter — and John D. Alexander’s lights leave a lot of the room black, creating an illusion of an eternal sacred space.
It’s not a highly plotted show, though a bit of drama is created when Creon (Harper-Short, stepping out from behind his onstage keyboard) tries to lure Oedipus away from Colonus and when Polyneices (Greg Watkins) arrives to the song “Evil” with the collar popped on his suit jacket. The cast is impressively even: A.J. Calbert is a gracious Theseus, Chauncey Matthews is a silky voiced balladeer, Tiffany Byrd and Ashley Buster are pitiable as Oedipus’s daughters-sisters, and Branden Mack and Rafealito Ross add choral strength. All around, the voices are sturdy and the demeanor is devout.
You can feel the gospel cadence in the titles of Bob Telson’s songs: “Stop: Do Not Go On!,” “Come Back Home,” “Now Let the Weeping Cease.” DeMone and the chorus make thrilling drama of “Lift Me Up (Like a Dove),” which has a dusky, rousing hook, and the finish doesn’t stoop to manipulating a standing ovation. It genuinely makes you want to rise and clap along.
The Gospel at Colonus, conceived and adapted by Lee Breuer, music by Bob Telson, original lyrics by Lee Breuer, adapted lyrics by Bob Telson and Lee Breuer. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Scenic design, Tim Jones; sound design, Justin Schmitz. About 90 minutes. Through March 26 at the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Tickets $30-$35. Call 703-418-4808 or visit wscavantbard.org.