Griffin Matthews and Michael
Luwoye photo by Joan Marcus.
By Julia Polinsky
Lots of youthful earnestness, needing some work. But in Invisible
Thread, with saturated colors, vibrant movement, and heart-tugging
sentiment, as the first-act anthem says, they put it all on the line.
Griffin Matthews opens Invisible Thread by telling us, up
front, that this is his story. That kind of face-front addressing the audience,
breaking the 4th wall from the get-go, can be tedious and annoying, but in this
case, the self-referential device works. It works partly because Griffin is so
dedicated to his show, partly because director Diane Paulus has done a smashing
job of taking an okay show and making it vivdly, exuberantly alive.
Griffin is Black, gay, an out-of-work actor, and a tenor. It’s
safe to say that he identifies with all those labels, but only some of them
bite him in the ass. His church choir (terrific singing from the ensemble,
here) kicks him out for being gay; he doubts himself, his career, and is sick
of being poor in New York City. Kvetching to his Jewish boyfriend, Ryan (Corey
Mach), Griffin rather theatrically yearns for Something More Important in his
life, some way of Giving Back.
The next thing we know, he’s off to Uganda (terrific singing and
dancing from the ensemble, here), to help build a school for an apparently
corrupt Pastor Jim, who never appears, but is rumored to build schools and sell
them. Griffin, naïve as Candide, lives in the pastor’s compound, which is
managed by the angry, damaged, manipulative Joy (the splendid Adeola Role) and
her seemingly simple brother, Jacob (Michael Luwoye).
Nicolette Robinson, Tyrone Davis Jr.. Joan
In defiance of Joy’s command not to talk to outside people, in the
market, Griffin meets kids who want education but don’t have access to schools.
They persuade Griffin to leave Pastor Jim and teach them. Jacob joins them; the
emotional bond between students and teacher creates a powerful invisible thread
among them -- powerful enough to survive when Ryan comes from New York to
Adeola Role and
Griffin Matthews Joan
That thread, which ties Griffin and Ryan, Griffin to
"his" kids, and eventually, Ryan to the kids, starts to break down
when the school is destroyed, and Griffin and Ryan return to America.
Sustaining the kids in a different, expensive school tests Griffin and Ryan’s
ingenuity – they have no money to spare, and their fund raising efforts are
coming up empty. The invisible thread that ties these people together gets
strained to almost-breaking, and then an unlikely source comes through. Joy and
happiness reign, with a rousing final song and notes on the kids’ current lives
making a satisfying finale.
It would be easy to accuse the show of cheap sentiment, of
shallowness, of being too earnest. Perhaps, but it’s so visually arresting, so
exciting to watch, that the sentimentality doesn’t really matter. Choreography,
by Sergio Trujillo, with co-choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie, kicks the
beautifully unified ensemble into high-energy movement, much of it based on African
dance. The book, by Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould, has snappy one liners, as
well as sincere baring of the heart, and if it wanders into less-than-credible
moments – really? Homophobes suddenly have changes of heart? in a traditional
society? sure, whatever -- it’s all in the service of making a feel-good show.
In a Broadway season that has produced dysfunctional families in
Buckingham Palace and Red Hook, the complex miseries of a WWII Japanese
internment camp, the imprisonment and torture of a writer, and the exquisite
infidelity of Therese Raquin, what the hell is wrong with a feel-good
show? The audience absolutely loves it, jumps to its feet, screaming and
Granted, Invisible Thread is off-Broadway, at Second Stage.
But it has “We’re Moving!” written all over it. The loving care lavished on its
projections, set, lighting, choreography, and costuming, and above all,
direction, speak volumes. This show has been treated as if it were a done deal,
moving to Broadway.
Before that happens, some things need to be addressed. The score,
as lively as it is, comes off as too many of the same songs, in the same key.
Not quite monotonous, but not as interesting as they could be. The credibility issues
need some ironing out, or else the audience has to stretch the willing
suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.
Doesn’t really matter. Engaging, tuneful, exuberant, and happy, Invisible
Thread leaves most of the audience smiling.
Second Stage Tony Kiser Theater
305 W. 43rd St.
Box office: 212-246-4422