The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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‘Oh Heaven,’ a paradise

There are three questions you will probably ask yourself as you watch “Only Heaven” – what exactly is this, why are they singing so loudly and is this really the same theater I saw “The Full Monty” in just last week? But then you will inevitably figure out that the best thing you should do is to stop asking questions, get your mind out of the gutter, and just sit back and let the musical experience wash over you.

“Only Heaven” playing in Theater Too at Dallas’s Theater Three is not a musical in the traditional sense of having a storyline, a plot, and choreography. Instead, the work is technically called a song cycle, in which songs are sung in a certain order and presented as a single entity.

In the barest description, one could say that in “Only Heaven” composer Ricky Ian Gordon sets iconic American writer Langston Hughes’s poetry to music. But this does not even begin to describe the way the musical show weaves between joy and tragedy. Each actor infuses passion into their role as well as every song. There is poignancy and humor one in Hughes’s poetry, and it’s stunningly powerful when all of these elements come together.

I really must stress that “Only Heaven” is not a traditional musical theater experience. The sooner audience members understand this, the sooner they can truly appreciate what they are watching.

When one person stops singing, another person immediately starts into his or her song. When characters do speak, they speak the words of Langston Hughes’s poetry. What little plot there is can be found in stolen glances, blocking, facial expressions, props and sometimes the lyrics.

Hughes grew to fame during the Harlem Renaissance, and his work resounds with pride in the African American identity. He explored the emotions of middle class blacks in America, but people experience the same feelings regardless of race, and not all of his work has to be distinctly racial.

One does not need to know of Hughes’s work (although you might remember him from first-year rhetoric classes) to respond to his raw, intense universally human feelings or to understand his racially charged poems. Regardless of your race, you wi ll laugh at his take on Jim Crow laws from a child’s perspective in “Merry-Go-Round,” and you will identify with the loneliness of “Angels Wings.”

Under Terry Dobson’s direction, that sentiment is shared in his multicultural six people cast. Characters do not have names but descriptive titles to work from such as The Good Girl (SMU alumna Tiffany Roberts), The Bad Girl (Nicole MacPherson), The Street Musician (Victor Guerra Ray), The Addict (Sergio Antonio Garcia), The Bag Lady (Sally Soldo) and The Wise One (Eleanor T. Threatt).

Garcia has the most fidgety performance, but he can maneuver in between completely adorable in his love song “When Sue Wears Red” and harrowing in “Border Line” as he shoots up heroin. Ray beautifully takes on “Daybreak in Alabama” and is heart-wrenching in the gentle unrequited love song “Love Song for Antonia.”

The scene in which MacPherson sings/cries in “Poor Girl’s Ruination/Dream Keeper” is stunning. Do not be fooled by Roberts’ joyous performance in the first act; she will simply upset you in “Song for a Dark Girl.” Soldo primarily sings compellingly about loneliness, but the intense death song “Drum” will stay with you. Threatt as the mother hen of the bunch has a certain comfort about her, which makes her break-down song “Bound North Blues” even more disturbing.

“Only Heaven’s” best moments occur when the whole company sings especially on the beautifully harmonious “Prayer” and “Litany.”

As to why are they singing so loudly? It’s an intimate space in the 90-seat basement (the space below the theater in which you saw “The Full Monty”), and the songs should be sung powerfully. I assure you that once you stop harping on this aspect, you will have a heavenly time.

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