By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Jan 22, 2020 at 4:36 PM

Surprising musical mash-ups are all the rage in theater right now. Performers rap about America’s founding fathers in "Hamilton." The angry ex-wives of Henry VIII rock out like Beyonce and Ariana Grande in "Six." And in "The Gospel at Colonus," which opened at Skylight Music Theatre on Jan. 17, the ancient Greek Oedipus story is told through traditional gospel music, set in a modern Pentecostal church service.

The production, directed by Sheri Williams Pannell, makes a joyful noise indeed, highlighting several fantastic performers whose voices rise to the heavens – so much so that even if other areas of the production fall flat, their gorgeous gospel prowess helps this unique show rise above. 

Often styles are juxtaposed to allow an audience to see a familiar story in a fresh new light. In the case of "The Gospel at Colonus," avant-garde director Lee Breuer said he wanted to use a modern form to illuminate an old one. In an interview with The New York Times, he explained, "What I found was that the Pentecostal, Afro-American church, which is part of the American language, gives you a living experience of catharsis in the world today. I wanted to show them: This is the cathartic experience, this is what Aristotle was talking about, this is what Greek tragedy is, this is what our entire Western dramatic culture is based on. You begin to understand catharsis by experiencing it."

By layering an ancient religious rite focused on tragic flaws and predestination on top of a modern-day Christian message centering on forgiveness and redemption, Breuer and his collaborator, composer Bob Telson, bring joyful celebration to the final section of Oedipus’ journey. Lesser known than the story of his epic downfall, this chapter sees the tired and blind former ruler as an outcast, comforted by his daughters/sisters Antigone and Ismene. He curses his sons for fighting over which one should rule the kingdom and seeks a blessed place where he can die, fulfilling the last portion of the prophecy that has ruled his tragic life.

Byron Jones centers the production, bringing his glorious, enormous voice to the role of Oedipus. Wearing sunglasses and a black ensemble with traditional African designs on the tunic, he embodies the anger and woe of a tortured leader who was doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, no matter how hard he fought against his fate. As Theseus, a sympathetic ruler who allows Oedipus to rest in his village, Curtis Bannister is also exceptional. His gentle but agile singing voice and considerable acting skills make his message the most clear.

Several performers emerge from the choir to play smaller roles, dressed in red robes trimmed with vibrant kente cloth. Shawn Holmes is terrific as Choragos, injecting his solos with character and also harmonizing effortlessly in a quartet – a capella and backed by the eight-piece, onstage band. And each time Kevin James Sievert takes the spotlight, it’s hard not to smile. An audience favorite from his turn in last season’s "Five Guys Named Moe," Sievert’s smooth dance moves and unstoppable tenor light up the stage. For a big finish, leave it to Cynthia Cobb and her electric interpretation of "Lift Him Up" to infuse the entire cast with jubilant spirit.

The overall production design (with scenic design from Julia Noulin-Merat) does a nice job of straddling the two worlds of a modern church and an ancient Greek amphitheater. There is an unmistakable pulpit where Marvin Hannah, dressed in preacher’s robes, reads to us from the book of Oedipus. And there is an ebullient choir arranged in stadium seating, frequently underlining Hannah’s messages with ad-libbed words of praise and waves of their woven palm fans. A large swag of luxurious blue fabric frames the preacher, and its ends fall down on each side of the lectern, as if imitating stained glass windows. But instead of walls, behind the performers is a clear, bright sky, just as theater goers in ancient Athens might have enjoyed. 

Bold costumes by Amy Horst build on traditional African patterns, executed in exuberantly colorful kente prints for the lead characters. Augmenting swatches of prints that run down the sleeves of the choir robes, the women also wear gorgeous wraps of similar materials in their hair.

Thanks to an exceptionally talented cast, the music is stirring, exceptionally well-sung and expertly played by the band – with standout riffs from guitarist Steve Lewandowski and the usual, large array percussion from Michael "Ding" Lorenz. The harmonies are impressive and bits of choreography inject movement and energy into the show, which is two hours long, including an intermission. 

The struggles with this "Gospel" unfortunately come with the storytelling. The narrators are often tripped up by the script's archaic language and, in the process, lack the charisma of a compelling orator. As a result, pacing and focus on the through-line is a problem. But even if the two disparate forms – old and new, Greek legend and gospel –don't quite meld together into completely cathartic combination, the modern half of the equation easily succeeds enough to make this a wholly unique service worth attending.