My Heart is the Drum, currently filling houses at Issaquah’s Village Theatre, is the penultimate show of their 2015-2016 season. It has a big heart and big problems, but also a fervent and hugely talented cast. They present this original musical (seen here first at VT’s 2014 Festival of New Musicals) in the best light its current version allows.
Though this is the first fully produced version of this work, which features a book by Jennie Redling, music and concept by Phillip Palmer, and lyrics by Stacey Luftig, it’s possible that more work was done on the material since its festival performance. But here, as then, it’s a show with a Jekyll and Hyde complex with a generally upbeat and positive first act and a hugely downbeat second act.
It starts as a tale of Efua, a young girl Efua from the impoverished village of Kafrona, Ghana who desperately wants to get a college education in the big city of Accra. When her parents interfere with her plans and try to force her into an arranged marriage, Efua and her lovely cousin Balinda away run to the city. Balinda’s father has made the deal with a devil of a hustler/sex trafficker named Caesar Nabuto which imperils their safety, and puts them at risk for the AIDS virus. It’s left up to the awkward and highly superstitious Edward Adu (to whom Efua was betrothed) to find and rescue them before it’s too late.
Though many of the songs have musical appeal and lyrical dexterity, the book is just too scattered, and treats the AIDS issues Africa in early 2000’s haphazardly at best. Director Schele Williams elicits fine performances from her cast, but can’t do much to meld the script’s identity crisis. Choreographer Sonia Dawkins stages some intrinsically fitting numbers in Act One, but Act Two suffers from a lack of numbers that require choreographic flourishes.
As Efua, Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako is natural. She’s lovely and blessed with a voice as sweet and warm as she looks, and she carries the heavy load on this production. She is ably matched by Jon-Michael Reese, as the clumsy but endearing and funny Edward Adu. The pair mesh idyllically as a couple. Jarvis Antonio Green and Faith Russell give heartfelt, complex shadings to the roles of Efua’s struggling parents. Joel Weill creates a passionate yet unworthy Balinda. Shaunyce Omar is a sheer force of nature as Nana, the guiding spirit of Efua’s Grandmother. She has the kind of voice that no microphone need amplify, one that fills your heart and soul with happiness. Geoffrey Simmons has a creepy edge but little depth in the role of Caesar, while Lauren Dupree mines the role of kind-hearted prostitute Kanika for all it’s worth.
The settings by Carey Wong are as inconsistent as the script. Kafrona, despite its financial hardships, looking very appealing, dominated by a huge sprawling tree. It contrasts with Accra’s on-the-cheap bazaars and supposedly posh hotel rooms that look like Days Inn specials. The lighting design by Aaron Copp is serviceable, and Karen Ann Ledger’s costume designs are often ornately handsome. Christopher Littlefield’s musical direction of both the cast and orchestra is noteworthy.
My Heart is the Drum, I think, wants to be a sister under the skin to better shows like The Lion King and Once on This Island, flavored with some hard-hitting subtext underneath. At this point that subtext still needs to be unearthed.
My Heart is the Drum runs through April 24, 2016 at Village Theater in Issaquah and then moves to the Everett Performing Arts Center April 29 through May 22, 2016. For tickets or more information contact the Issaquah box office at 425-392-2202 or the Everett box office at 425-257-8600 or visit them online at villagetheatre.org.