This review could just as well go under Music as Theater, for while this 1966 work by noted TV composer Gerald Fried is currently at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (as a “Special Event” with only three performances, the last one Saturday July 26 at 1 PM), it is an oratorio. Oh, it has characters, funny ones, and it has acting, minimally. It’s structured like Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion,” complete with an Evangelist narrator singing in secco recitative. That demanding role is handled with a lovely voice and admirable clarity and assuredness by mezzo Kimberly Sogioka.
Fried is on hand to conduct his score, which smoothly fuses jazz rhythms and instrumentation with classical choral modes. The story concerns a hapless lesser angel (Mauricio Trejo) who pleads with the Lord (Matthew Curran) for a chance to find some good on Earth and thus save it from a takeover by Satan (Scott Bearden), who has run out of room down below. Initially discouraged by encounters with human silliness (a Bingo parlor) and greed (an oil well), Les finds hope in a humble coffee shop, but humanity still comes perilously close to being wiped out before he manages to make the Lord see the light as well.
The soloists acquit themselves very well – they are very fine vocalists – as do the small chorus and the jazz band. During a few of the more rhythmically tricky sections where band and chorus interact in complex ways, togetherness falls short of perfection, but much more of the time the story and the music flow easily, with numerous musically dramatic passages, like the bewailing of an “ungrateful Earth” undertoned by the chorus musing that there’s “time for one more coffee”; Les’s discovery of a green shoot that blossoms into a beautiful white flower “all by itself”; and the Lord’s exasperation with and firing of Les, who is then “destined for Limbo.”
Fried, who is in his 80s, wrote the libretto as well as the music, and it’s gratifying to see him at the podium reviving a work almost half a century old. The composer is best known for his film and television work, having collaborated with Quincy Jones on the Emmy-winning score for Roots and written for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, Gilligan’s Island, and the original Star Trek among other series. Clearly he had other musical ambitions, and a highly intelligent and creative sensibility is manifest here.
The modest staging by opera director Charles Maryan doesn’t transform this oratorio into musical theater but does draw out the humor, the passion, and the 1960s wise-ass flavor that jazzes up the libretto. (Satan revealing himself to Les: “Meet Daddy Mischief.”)