Libretto by Yehuda Hyman . Music by Daniel Hoffman
Musical Direction by George Fulginiti-Shakar
Choreography by Peter DiMuro and Shula Strassfeld of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
Directed by Nick Olcott
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
The idea behind David in Shadow and Light, updating the story of the Biblical charismatic yet flawed leader, has promise. The life of David is surely grist for an epic musical and Jesus Christ Superstar demonstrated the potential for using contemporary musical theatre conventions and selective anachronisms to tell a Biblical story. Regrettably, the world premiere of David in Shadow and Light has an underdeveloped script that veers wildly from camp to melodrama, with too much of the production having the feel of an extended skit.
Adam (Norman Aronovic) and the angel Metatron (Donna Migliaccio) are reviewing a movie about Adam’s descendants when they happen upon an infant David, who “shines so bright.” Adam senses that David has a heart that could change the world, and decides to see the story. The film projector and the recurring chorus about “twenty four frames per second of life” are part of the avant-guarde vibe that the production works so strenuously to achieve.
Although characters repeatedly comment about how wonderful David is, the book provides too few moments in the story where David’s special charisma is on display. Similarly, Matt Pearson portrays Young David in a juvenile manner without strong evidence of the power of his goodness or his future adult leadership promise. Even the prophet Samuel is initially perplexed when God leads him to David to be anointed as a replacement for the increasingly corrupt King Saul.
Brought to the palace by a servant dressed in tie and tails, typical of the mixed costuming throughout the show, David is implored to sing away the darkness that haunts Saul (Bobby Smith), who is angry and distraught over the fact that God no longer speaks to him. David is an instant hit with Saul’s son Jonathan (the talented Will Gartshore in a thankless role) and daughter Michal (a charming Carolyn Agan).
Saul’s ranting over the loss of God’s love and his subsequent jealousy of David provides much of the energy found in the first act. Smith makes the most of his comic lines: when told his kingship is a catastrophe, Saul dryly responds “Well, don’t feel you have to spare my feelings.” Yet even the skillful Smith has difficulty overcoming the one-dimensional writing of his character.
David has numerous epic adventures: he kills a punk rock Goliath (Russell Sunday in black leather, mohawk helmet and patent leather platform boots); he marries the King’s daughter Michal, although their instant connection is never really explained or demonstrated; he flees from the jealous Saul, eventually becomes King following the death of Saul and Jonathan, and faces the flash bulbs of the paparazzi as Act One ends.
Early in Act Two, Young David is replaced by Older David (a returning Bobby Smith who was Saul in Act One). The use of the same actor points the audience to the potential corruption of kingly power, but the abrupt change is initially confusing and robs the audience of the opportunity to see David’s evolution.
Soon David embarks on the romance with Batsheva that leads to his spiritual downfall. This sequence takes the bold interpretation of creating a bisexual subtext between her husband Uriah and David. His life is spared despite his sin of arranging Uriah’s murder and taking his wife; however, he must pay for his sin in other ways. Among his tribulations is the revolt of his beloved son Absalom (Will Gartshore doubling). David ultimately must lead the army to victory, leading to his grief and his growing desolation.
At the end, an exhausted David anoints his son Solomon (Matt Pearson doubling) as his successor. Yet even this scene, which is preceded by a nice piece of music about man’s mortality (“we are dirt, He is light”) and should be a touching climax to the show, is marred by irreverent humor. David then dies and is led off to a golden Heaven by the Angel, who touches David’s heart and, inexplicably, thanks him.
The production does have its charms, starting with some artistic choreography. Memorable sequences include a dance number between Saul and David, a honeymoon sequence between David and Michal, Older David with his illicit love Batsheva.
Unfortunately, the beauty of the choreography almost seems out of place when compared with much of the production. The humor is very broad and low, often funny, but on occasion inappropriate for a family audience (e.g., jokes involving a dripping bag of bloody foreskins collected from the enemy and Goliath threatening to make his enemies into a “Hebrew stew.”) Because both the humor and the characters are so broad, it becomes hard to become fully invested in the portrayal of what should be a complex flawed hero character.
The production’s score (performed by a four-piece band prominently featuring composer Daniel Hoffman on violin) is interesting, yet inconsistent. The music, a blend of Middle Eastern and modern classical sensibilities, moves the story forward in a semi-operatic style. Sometimes this is successful and appealing, especially in some sweeter moments such as when David welcomes his new child (“How I deserve you, I don’t understand” and “Sleep, rest, be blessed”). Too often, however, it is atonal and occasionally even screechy. I felt sympathy for some of the cast who had difficulty making those notes work.
David in Shadow and Light is given the benefit of an attractive staging, facilitated by Mischa Kaufman’s set design which features large white panels that get reconfigured to suit the different settings. The dedicated and energetic cast tried valiantly to make the show work; it’s hard to criticize any of these talented veterans working with the under-developed script.
The low humor, broad characterizations, contemporary dialogue, and other modern theatre conventions do little to illuminate the theme of how a man could engage in both Godly behavior and murder. While moments such as when David holds up the newborn Absalom, encouraging him to grow will live in your memory, too much of the production will leave you scratching your head.
As a final note, some of the humor, themes, and language of this production are PG-13. Many parents would not find it a suitable means of teaching the David story to young children or an appropriate event for a family night out.
Running Time: 2:30 (one intermission)
Where: Theater J, the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center at 1529 16th Street N.W., Washington, DC.
When: Through June 22. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 3:00 PM and 7:30 PM. Special matinees on Wednesdays at 12 noon on June 4th and 11th.
Tickets: $35 – $55. Buy tickets online or call (800) 494-TIXS. Student tickets are $20 and rush tickets ($20-$25) available for some performances.
Info: Call 703-683-2824 or visit the Theater J website.