Diane Paulus has either burnished or tarnished the reputation of the American Repertory Theatre, the nonprofit company on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, MA where she is artistic director. Depends on how you feel about nonprofit theaters as launching pads for Broadway shows — in Paulus’ case, that would include Finding Neverland, Pippin, The Gershwins’ Porgy And Bess and The Glass Menagerie, ambitious projects all (well, nearly all).
I’m happy to report that Invisible Thread — a new musical that opened Wednesday night at Second Stage (which is near, but not on, Broadway) and marks her latest transfer — is a high-energy, visually arresting, well-intentioned bust. Why am I happy to see a show flopping around? Well, because Invisible Thread, a young effort by Griffin Matthews and Matt Gould that won the Richard Rodgers Award under its original title, Witness Uganda, showcases a tremendous amount of talent. That talent is at present mostly imitative: Invisible Threads mimics the musical versatility and determination-in-the-face-of-defeat of Rent without advancing the form as other post-Rent musicals like Spring Awakening, Next To Normal and Hamilton have done. But the show is bursting with potential, not to mention infectious energy, humor and a few surprises.
Matthews plays a character named Griffin, an out-of-work actor who’s kicked out of his church choir when it’s discovered he’s gay. At home with his Jewish boyfriend Ryan (Corey Mach), he bemoans the gay New York artist’s life of poverty, rejection and self-doubt that we like to think of as mother’s milk to the creative set but in fact just really sucks. Griffin decides to volunteer for do-good service, building a school in Uganda (because the South Bronx scares him, really?). He lands in a village ruled by a self-serving and unseen Pastor Jim, living on the church compound with seen-it-all caretaker Joy (Adeola Role) and her simple but hunky brother Jacob (Michael Luwoye).
But he falls in with a crowd of kids seemingly hungry for the education they will never get from Pastor Jim’s bogus schemes. Eventually Ryan comes over to join him, and they are quickly swept up in a conundrum of conscience: How much will they change their own lives to sustain these childrens’ increasingly demanding, not to mention expensive, lives?
The title song is often reprised, as you can imagine a story like this providing many opportunities to repeat the line “there is a long invisible thread / that wraps a round my heart / and wraps around your head.” It’s the most banal number in a score that features several roof-raisers. The show is punctuated by the pairing of Paulus’ streamlined staging with the exuberant choreography credited to Sergio Trujillo (On Your Feet!, Memphis) and the show’s original dance-maker, Darrell Grand Moultrie.
The company, beautifully dressed by the designer ESosa, is spectacular, boasting not only an ability to move as an ensemble but also to soar on wings of some amazing vocals, especially from Role as well as belters Melody Betts and Aisha Jackson. Some of the set pieces reminded me of Liz Swados’ breakthrough musical from the 1970s, Runaways (which moved from the Public Theater to Broadway). But by the end, Invisible Thread drowns in a pool of sentiment and cliché, leaving us not sympathetic to Griffin’s quest but instead scratching our heads over his naivete and revived notions of cultural imperialism. Not the best attitude to have on exiting a show.