‘Saint Heaven’ is an innovative, inspiring musical

September 23, 2008

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Allan Snyder (left) stars as Thom Rivers and Tanesha Ross portrays Eshie Willington.

Allan Snyder (left) stars as Thom Rivers and Tanesha Ross portrays Eshie Willington.

Village Theatre’s “Saint Heaven” goes to the past and comes up with a soul-stirring new musical that will leave you wanting to hear more. 

Set in the fictional, rundown mining town of Saint Heaven, Ky., during the 1950s, the musical tests its characters’ strength of faith as they sit on the cusp of drastic changes relating to medicine, religion and interracial relationships in American society. 

Its main character, Thomas Rivers, played by Allan Snyder, returns to what he perceives as his backward hometown after his father, Thomas Rivers Sr., the town’s doctor, dies unexpectedly.

Rivers returns to shut down his father’s practice and leave. But his childhood friends and a passionate young woman, Eshie Willington, played by Tanesha Ross, have more in store for him.

Willington’s passion and misunderstood “gift,” which is actually epilepsy, is the driving force prolonging Rivers’ stay.

Snyder excels in his role as both a hero and villain as he confronts his jaded memory of his father and the demons he thought he left behind. 

But most likely what will stick in the minds of audiences for months to come is the sultry and exemplary vocal talent of the cast, which features a stunning vocal and stylistic array of male and female talent. 

Ross’ performances are beautiful when paired with the searing gospel and jazz-influenced score developed for her character. Her two female counterparts are equally exquisite in their delivery.

The vocal range of Cynthia Jones, who plays Mille Walden, a forward-thinking, strong black woman, turns out a performance worthy of a standing ovation while Billie Wildrick, who plays Maggie Hartford, fully embodies her spitfire, rough-around-the-edges, early-feminist persona in her country music-inspired solos. 

Rounding out the vocal talent is Mark Carr, who plays Garrison Martin, another friend of Rivers, and Kingsley Leggs’ Pastor Joe Bertram, whose soulful, rumbling voices radiate throughout the theater.  

While there are some slow areas in the production, the innovative musical composition keeps you guessing.

Unlike traditional musicals, which tend to only explore the surface of human emotion through song, “Saint Heaven” thoroughly incorporates the gritty complexities of love and relationships with thoughtful lyrics. 

What sets it further apart is its innovative use of complex scoring. 

Keith Gordon, the show’s composer and lyricist, created six separate songbooks, one for each of the six main characters, spanning the gospel, jazz, rhythm and blues, and country music genres. While it might seem complex and messy, it is masterfully composed, denoting each character’s unique plot line while intertwining their lives as a shared story.  

Brilliant comedic timing from both Wildrick and Carr lighten the intensity of the dramatic musical. 

Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434, ext. 241, or clusebrink@isspress.com. 

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