when deserve-to-be divas work together to create art
by Drew Rowsome
By the time anyone gets to read this review, there will only be three or less performances of this production of Obeah Opera left. If there is any way you can get a ticket, do so.
The poster and playbill describe Obeah Opera as "A Nicole Brooks Vision." Brooks, as the creator, composer, librettist and main character, has the right to claim ownership but her vision is brought to life by a truly extraordinary cast. There are vocal dynamos I was familiar with - Divine Brown, Dana Jean Phoenix (Into the Woods), Saphire Demitro (Jesus Christ Superstar, American Idiot, Little Shop of Horrors), Sabryn Rock (Once on this Island), Sarah Gibbons (Falsettos) and Nickeshia Garrick - but every other voice and presence is as powerful. To have that many potential, and deserving of the status, divas on one stage combining forces for the common good, makes for a riveting evening. And brings Brooks's themes of female/sexual/racial empowerment to literal life.
Brooks herself is an incredible singer and, like the rest of the cast, rides the glorious music with only the occasional showy embellishment. Obeah Opera is performed acapella but the arrangements and harmonies weave intricately to create an effect that is, well, operatic. If that particular high art is defined as melodic musical themes recurring to tell a story of oversized emotions, then Obeah Opera is an opera proper. That the musical idioms range through gospel, pop, jazz, world beat and even secular, only makes it instantly accessible.
The tale of the first victim of the Salem witch hunts, the slave Tituba who is a healer and not a witch, is starkly told and the plot is more impressionistic than dramatically driving. This in no way makes it anything but enthralling and cathartic. This is the third incarnation of Obeah Opera (the photos are from the two previous productions but rest assured the current one is stunningly designed and costumed to showcase the talent and themes) and the passion is so palpable that it is close to perfection. Brooks' tears at the curtain call - it was an instant standing ovation - may have been accentuated by joy that Obeah Opera has emphatically transcended workshop status.
The thrust stage brings the audience right into the action but occasionally forces the director, Lezlie Wade (Elegies), to lose the focus on the fascinating faces and present at least a part of the audience with a rear view. This does not defeat the remarkable Singing Sandra who, as The Elder, can sing to the rear of the stage and still shake the foundations while driving every emotion deep into the audience's very core.
There were theatrical producing heavyweights in the audience of the preview I was lucky enough to attend, so Obeah Opera will undoubtedly have a future beyond being part of Panamania. However magic is elusive and when there is a chance to experience it in an intimate space, do so.
Obeah Opera continues until Sat, Aug 8 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, The Distillery District, 50 Tank House Lane. obeahopera.com, toronto2015.org