The promise of 'Goddess,' Berkeley Rep's rousing new musical

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday September 6, 2022
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Amber Iman (front) and cast members of 'Goddess.'(photo: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
Amber Iman (front) and cast members of 'Goddess.'(photo: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

A crowd-pleasing package of infectious music, thrilling choreography, vibrant costumes and charismatic performances, "Goddess," now having its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, probably already has all it takes to achieve the Broadway success its creators are hoping for.

It's a colorful swirl of entertainment that makes for a great night out. But if the producers and director Saheem Ali, who conceptualized the show based on an African myth, further aspire to artistic coherence and emotional power, there's work to be done.

For passionate local theatergoers, sussing out the nature of that work is one of the joys of having Broadway-targeted productions as part of the Berkeley Rep's programming.

After post-Rep polishes, the Temptations musical "Ain't Too Proud" went on to be a hit (You can see how it evolved when a national tour comes to the Golden Gate Theatre in November) while "Paradise Square" proved unfixable. Audiences who saw the Avett Brothers' "Swept Away" earlier this year are surely curious which elements will be salvaged and which abandoned should the maritime musical eventually set sail again.

"Goddess," set in Kenya, has a simple story at its core. Jocelyn Bioh's book follows the parallel paths of a romantic duo. Using the alias Nadira, Marimba the Goddess of Music (Amber Iman), lives and searches for love among mortals in defiance of her mother. Omari (Phillip Johnson Richardson), scion of a Mombasan political dynasty, just returned from university in the U.S., wants to reject the run for mayor his parents have planned and dedicate himself to his saxophone and the less prestigious career track as a performing artist.

In the end, the pair cannot remain together on the same physical plane, but they effectively form a transcendent love triangle with music at its apex. This notion is not just simple, it has a beautiful resonance. Music is the connective tissue between the mortal world and the spirit realm. Anyone who has ever been moved by a church choir would shout "Amen!" to that.

But despite loads of audience toe-tapping and occasional shouted hosannas throughout, the show's motivating revelation never quite lands. The production's second act is so hectically cluttered with plot and platitudes (The former including harsh gunplay completely at odds with the show's essential warmth; the latter exemplified by "Always be true to exactly who you are" and "I knew you were special, even in my womb") that the story's ultimate articulation of its central tenet is almost entirely obscured.

Rodrick Covington (center) and cast members of 'Goddess.' (photo: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)  

The show looks and sounds glorious. Costume designer Dede Ayite conveys urban African style with an eye-tickling mix of traditional prints, Day-Glo flash and figure-flaunting women's wear, all of which remain in near constant motion thanks to Darrell Grand Moultrie's loose-limbed hard-partying choreography.

And Arnulfo Maldonado's two-tiered set of the Moto Moto nightclub, where most of the action takes place, is an African Copacabana with a charmingly disorganized bar area, a dramatic staircase, a handsome bandstand from which the show's hot eight-piece ensemble, led by Marco Paguia, plays composer Michael Thurber's percolating blend of jazz, Afrobeat and R&B. The score is endlessly engaging, a context-appropriate amalgam of grooves and rhythms more than traditional show tune stylings.

Distinct characters
The 18 cast members are uniformly superb, especially during ensemble song and dance numbers at the nightclub: Through facial expressions and physical signatures, they retain distinct character personalities even as they coalesce in ensemble formations.

As Nadira, leading lady Amber Iman is shockingly talented, with a multi-octave range and remarkable timbre control, alternately bringing Patti Labelle and Anita Baker to mind. She's also a formidable scat singer who somehow imbues that usually rat-a-tat genre with bluesy moodiness.

As flirtatious club managers Ahmed and Rashida, Rodrick Covington and mononymed Abena, serve as comic counterpoint to the romantic leads and nearly steal the show. Their smiles, sexy body language and deliciously humorous line readings make every audience member feel like they're in on the fun.

Phillip Johnson Richardson and Amber Iman in 'Goddess.' (photo: Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)  

Occasionally, Ahmed is pressed into service as a fourth wall-breaking narrator despite the fact that a Nadira-adjacent female trio has earlier been introduced as a Greek chorus. Ahmed alone would be the smarter choice, since he better reflects the show's fundamental spirit (Think the Emcee in "Cabaret," the Leading Player in "Pippin") and the trio diffuses Nadira's supernatural singularity.

There's so much jubilant, authentic, African-inspired energy to the scenes at Moto Moto that "Goddess" loses momentum and, to its disadvantage, invites closer consideration when the action shifts to Omari's family home and the tone shifts to American sit-com. The prodigal son's demanding parents (Kingsley Leggs and Kecia Lewis) and betrothed (Destinee Rea) bicker and peck at him to play the good son and strong candidate.

All three deliver the dialogue they've been given with genuinely excellent comic timing, but it's pat and old hat and it sucks emotional stakes out of the storyline.

While you're sitting in Berkeley's Roda Theater, the sax swoons, the electric guitar plinks an irresistibly intricate pattern and the whole cast dances a smile onto your face. In the moment, all this show's shortcomings are easily forgiven. But as it makes its way to Manhattan, questions remain for the creators: Will you settle for a fat stack of "in the moment" success? Or will you keep striving to create an immortal Broadway "Goddess"?

'Goddess,' extended through Oct. 1. $30-$138. Berkeley Rep. 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 647-2949.

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