Jubilee Theatre’s past is shaking hands with its present in God’s Trombones, the beloved musical revue that opened last Friday.
The show is based on the sermon poems of James Weldon Johnson, an important civil rights leader and literary figure of the early 20th century, and features a book by Jubilee founder Rudy Eastman and music and lyrics by Douglas Balentine, two legends of Fort Worth theater who had untimely deaths (Eastman in 2005, and Balentine in 2008).
The show debuted at Jubilee in 1989 and has long been considered to be one of the defining productions of this house, which is celebrating its 35th season.
This presentation reunites three members of the first cast (May Allen, Steven Griffin and Blake Moorman) and nine additional singers, including a couple who were not yet born when this show first graced the Jubilee stage.
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This musical is essentially a tuneful stroll through the Bible. The numbers are built around such Biblical chestnuts as Noah and the great flood, Adam and Eve in the garden and Moses leading his people through the desert.
Many of the segments are delivered with tongue-in-cheek humor and anachronistic language.
When Moses’ charges start grumbling, for instance, they do not receive an elaborate thee-and-thou-laced tirade suitable for Bible verses. They just get a terse, “Keep movin’.”
All of the singers take care of their chores well, especially when singing as one unit. Indeed, most of this show makes you feel like you have wandered into a black church that has the best choir in town.
Surprisingly, however, not many of the singers really stand out in their solos. Many of those lone moments in the spotlight are strong, but the production does lack that take-your-breath-away showstopper.
That seeming shortcoming, however, can also be viewed as a testament to how balanced and consistent the vocals are on the whole.
Director Gloria Abbs, who has previously directed this show and several others at Jubilee, makes excellent use of the theater’s cozy space, and Carmen Jones’ bits of choreography are just right in this fast-moving, minimally-staged production.
Among the highlights are a joked-up telling of the Garden of Eden events that includes a barbershop quartet delivered number that advises everyone to “Blame It on the Woman,” and which features a hilarious portrayal of the devil by Griffin, who provided a great deal of the show’s comic relief. Also memorable is a highly emotional hymn about Jesus on the cross (song titles were not printed in the program).
The musical direction, by Nate L. Young, always makes the most of Balentine’s fine compositions.
So there is nothing new about this show. It just showcases what Jubilee has done for so long and so well — which is something they are quite justified in blowing their trombone about.