ABOVE: Amber Iman (front) is Nadira in the world-premiere musical Goddess directed by Saheem Ali, book by Jocelyn Bioh, music and lyrics by Michael Thurber at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Also pictured (l to r): Zachary Downer (Moto Moto Ensemble – Sameer), Phillip Johnson Richardson (Omari), Rodrick Covington (Ahmed), Melessie Clark (Grio Trio – Musi) and Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi). BELOW (back, l to r) Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi), Quiantae Thomas (Moto Moto Ensemble – Amina), Isio-Maya Nuwere (Moto Moto Ensemble – Safiyah), Wade Watson (Moto Moto Ensemble – Musa), Grasan Kingsberry (Moto Moto Ensemble – Jaali) and Teshomech (Grio Trio – Tisa). In front is Rodrick Covington as Ahmed. Photos by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
There are so many ways a world-premiere musical can go. Goddess had its splashy premiere this week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and to use some examples from that theater company alone, a new musical can be bold and bracing and surely Broadway bound (Green Day’s American Idiot, Ain’t Too Proud); it can be intriguing but needs a lot of work (Amélie); or it can be a giant question mark, as in why oh why does this musical need to exist (Swept Away, Monsoon Wedding).
Goddess, an entirely original work (blessedly not based on a movie, a book or an existing catalogue of songs), is a vibrant explosion of exuberance featuring a cast whose combined talent and charisma is stratospheric. In those moments when this show clicks, its humor, emotion and storytelling fuse into the very reason we love musical theater – it is communal, it is bigger than us and it is filled with emotions that are too rich for words alone.
Happily, Goddess has a number of those moments in its 2 1/2 hours. From the joyous opening number introducing us to the setting – the nightclub Moto Moto in Mombasa, Kenya – it’s clear that this cast and creative team are going to take us somewhere worthwhile. That good will goes a long way toward keeping the show moving, even when the story gets a little clunky, when some of the songs don’t quite rise to the level of the performances and especially when the ending is clouded in rushed confusion.
To begin with the good in director/creator Saheem Ali’s production, look no further than the title character, Marimba, goddess of music in African folklore, who escapes her evil mother and takes mortal form so that she might find true love. On Earth, she becomes Nadira, the soulful headliner at Moto Moto, and while she spurns the advances of Madongo, the club’s owner, she falls for Omari, a sweet saxophone player whose parents are pushing him to continue their legacy as the first family of Mombasa politics.
Played by Amber Iman, whom local audiences might remember as Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds in the first national tour of Hamilton when it opened in San Francisco in 2017, Nadira is a bit of an innocent when it comes to the ways of love but has a sultry way with a song. Iman is 100% believable as a goddess in hiding and looks stunning (as does all the cast) in the eye-popping costumes by Dede Ayite. She offers several tour de force solos, and even if the songs by Michael Thurber stop just short of being the dramatic showcases she deserves, her riveting performances more than make up the difference.
A general issue with Thurber’s score, as appealing as it is, has to do with a lack of depth in his lyrics and definitive shape to his melodies. For instance, from the second we meet Omari’s regal mom, Siti, played by the captivating Kecia Lewis, we know we need a big solo from her. She is the driving force behind pushing her son (even if it’s against his will) into politics because that is her family’s legacy stretching back for a century. When we finally get that song, Lewis’ performance is stunning, but the song itself is not. It lacks the sophistication of the character.
Other than throw-away songs for Omari’s too-strident fiancé, Cheche (Destinee Rea), and a bland “I will get what I want” song for the bad guy club owner (Lawrence Stallings), Thurber’s score has a pulsing appeal and pleasing pop sensibility, even if he leans far too heavily on the “above, of, love” rhyme scheme. The on-stage band, led by music director Marco Paguia, sounds great, and they’re at their best when the stage is in full party mode, and the ensemble is twirling, stomping and leaping to the lively choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie.
As long as Goddess is in Moto Moto (a beautifully detailed set by Arnulfo Maldonado) or concentrating on Nadira, things are good. Whenever Jocelyn Bioh’s book wanders into Omari’s home life or his world of politics, things get a lot less interesting and much more melodramatic. The exceptions are the visits to Balozi (Reggie D. White), a shaman of sorts who can consort with the wishes of the gods. White is a compelling performer, and the stage smoke and video projections add a little pizazz to the production.
In supporting roles within the second-tier romantic plot, Abena as the club’s manager/bartender Rashida and Rodrick Covington as Ahmed, the club’s MC, are utterly charming and threaten to steal the show. But Nadira and Omari maintain the emotional center. Their love story, although rushed, is touching, and we root for them to achieve their destinies as the fullest versions of themselves. It seems there are some missed musical opportunities here with Nadira and Omari. She’s the goddess of music. He’s a musician. They sing/play together once, but that connection feels underdeveloped, especially musically.
And then there’s that ending, which is not as developed as it likely (hopefully) will be. A character shows up with a gun. Something happens with the shaman, an incredibly dramatic ballad is delivered and BOOM, the cast reprises the glorious opening number. Then we get to the cast bows. If something specific happened with the gun situation, I completely missed it. I wanted to be fully immersed in the jubilation of the ending, but I was honestly still trying to put the pieces together.
Even as this new musical continues to develop, there’s much to love and enjoy. This show could be the burst of color, energy and new life that Broadway needs. There are issues to work out, but this Goddess definitely has more than a prayer of success.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Goddess continues an extended run through Oct. 1 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$138. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.
Goddess runs about 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Watch the opening number of Goddess in rehearsal: