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A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
The protagonist of the musical is "Griffin Matthews," played by author Matthews. "My name is Griffin," he says at the outset, "and this is my story." That sounds like the start of a vanity enterprise but, happily, Invisible Thread (directed in New York, as in Massachusetts, by Diane Paulus) is far better than that.
The musical begins in 2005, when protagonist Griffin's acting career is stalled. His candor about being gay is making him persona non grata in the Harlem church choir that has been his great comfort. Ready for a change and curious about his African heritage, Griffin leaves New York to volunteer on a school-building project in Uganda.
Things quickly go wrong. The building project is a hoax; Pastor Jim, the off-stage character who runs it, is a self-dealing rascal. None of the Africans Griffin encounters will acknowledge the African part of his African-American identity; and the Ugandan culture is far less tolerant of homosexuality than the church congregation back home.
Falling into the company of five penniless, streetwise teens (Tyrone Davis, Jr., Kristolyn Lloyd, Michael Luwoye, Nicolette Robinson, Jamar Williams), Griffin learns that in Uganda, primary and secondary education is available only to those with money. On a whim, he begins giving informal lessons to his teenage acquaintances in a derelict library building. Those classes, in real life, were the genesis of UgandaProject — a not-for-profit initiative founded by Matthews and co-directed by Gould — that supports students who otherwise would not have access to education. In the words of a song from the show, UgandaProject "resurrects people" instead of erecting buildings.
Invisible Thread is a traditional book musical featuring a vibrant score with African, African-American, and Broadway sounds. The libretto conveys Griffin's odyssey with utmost economy, one scene blending fluidly into the next. Peter Nigrini's dynamic projections, varied and beautiful to behold, contribute a sense of sweep and momentum and complement Tom Pye's wide, stark scenic design. The exhilarating choreography by Sergio Trujillo (currently represented on Broadway by On Your Feet ) and his co-choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie includes an Act Two tribute to the dream ballets of the Rodgers & Hammerstein era.
The first act of Invisible Thread chronicles Griffin's initial trip to Uganda. The second concerns his struggle to fund the work commenced in Africa and to address, from far away New York, the problems that his proteges encounter. At times, the two parts of the play seem like separate pieces on a double-bill, but the strong musical score mitigates, at least to some extent, that discontinuity.
The late scenes in which the congregation of Griffin's New York church and his Ugandan teens finally accept his sexuality are a bit didactic — special pleading that's unnecessary in the New York City Theater District. But those sequences contribute to an upbeat conclusion for a musical with an abundance of dark moments.
Paulus, Trujillo, and Moultrie collaborate with their design colleagues (and, especially, with ESosa, whose costumes fill the stage with color) to create a spectacle that moves with high velocity throughout. The 15 actors, singers, and dancers perform with relentless energy, and the musical ensemble of nine sounds at times like a full pit orchestra.
At moments, Invisible Thread brings to mind Whorl Inside a Loop, Sheree Rene Scott and Dick Scanlan's non-musical account of a Broadway performer and her students in the arts program of a men's maximum security prison that played at Second Stage earlier this year. But it's both more polished than Whorl and thematically more refined —an exuberant dramatization of the urgency, and the difficulty, of coming to terms with the diversity and the needs of our neighbors, both at home and abroad. If Invisible Thread doesn't fulfil all the expectations aroused by the awards and buzz it attracted as it homed in on New York, it nonetheless doesn't disappoint.