`Only Heaven' a magical musical

DAYTON––There are far more than a few "crumbs from the table of joy" in Only Heaven, a sophisticated and transporting musical theater work by Ricky Ian Gordon that opened Friday night in the Dayton Art Institute's 500–seat NCR Renaissance Auditorium.

Produced by the Muse Machine as the centerpiece of its 20th anniversary and directed by Joe Deer, with music direction by Joseph Bates, the fast–moving but memorable two–act presentation is based on the writings of Langston Hughes.

Thirty–eight selections ranging from excerpts to entire poems are sung, spoken and interpreted in dance movements during what is not quite an opera or musical, but is much more than a revue. Some songs stand out as self–contained showcases of a thought or a singer's vocal ability. Others blend in suites that approach narrative.

Their presence, dramatic expression and vocal power made the four featured singers––tenor Darius de Haas, soprano Adrienne Danrich, soprano Jonita Lattimore and baritone Jay Pierce––the near–constant focus during the final dress rehearsal performance on Wednesday night, but Hughes' words are always at the center.

Played by an ensemble including the composer on piano, Gordon's music flows from and alongside the lyrics, sometimes dashing ahead with impetuous enthusiasm to bring the text along, other times pausing to isolate or display a facet of it. The overall effect is an effortless pairing that clarifies interpretation and explores a wide range of feelings.

Only Heaven doesn't dwell on or shy away from the turmoil, pain and anger in Hughes' poetry.

A suite of settings in Act 2 that encompasses Pierce`s powerful rendition of Border Line, Lattimore's Song for a Dark Girl whose lover has been hanged in the post–slavery South, de Haas' passionate solo about death, Drum, and the repetition of the same words by one after the other in Prayer may be the most spellbinding passage of a production in which the singers' faces can be as compelling as their voices.

Things begin on a light and happy note––de Haas' soaring rendition of Heaven, a place "where happiness is everywhere."

The performance ends, if not quite on a hopeful note, then definitely on one that encourages people to care for each other, with Litany.

Choreographer–dancer Shonna Hickman–Matlock and Michael–Lamont Lytle evoke qualities as various as moonlight, comfort and death with their movements. The recitations of actress Sheila Ramsey establish her as a go between and knowing, regal presence.

There's pride in My People, hope in Time of Silver Rain and Daybreak in Alabama, love, romance and desire in Love Song for Lucinda, When Sue Wears Red and Joy. But Hughes often counters one emotion with another, as in Kid in the Park, where home is just around the corner, "but not really anywhere"; and images, as in Angels Wings, which are "white as snow," in contrast to the narrator's, which have been "drug in the dirty mire" and "all through the fire."

The blues of heart and soul are reflected in the light–catching painted fabric designer Dunsi Dai has draped with fluid elegance across the stage. But so is the "blue cloud–cloth" Hughes writes of using to protect tender dreams and "heart melodies." Such treasures are in safe hands with during Only Heaven.
- Terry Morris, Dayton Daily News, 23 February 2002