The New York Musical Festival is one of the most anticipated theater festivals in the city for good reason. The musical productions are top-drawer and professional from start to finish. People enjoy seeing which shows are shepherded along to eventually make it to Off Broadway, Los Angeles, and Regional Theater. And sometimes Broadway producers are interested, though considering what it takes to mount a Broadway production these days, that would seem to be an incredible dream. But dreams do come true.
One offering that I do hope will be shepherded in this fashion is the profoundly moving musical Temple of The Souls, which ran 17-23 July at the Acorn Theater, one of the venues where the New York Musical Festival is taking place until 6 August. The multiple-award-winning Temple of the Souls is absolutely smashing. I don’t want to even consider that this production may not not continue to garner a wide audience. It is superb.
The stirring, enlightened book by Anita Velez-Mitchell, Lorca Peress, and Anika Paris and entrancing, vibrant and hypnotic score (music by Dean Landon & Anika Paris, lyrics by Anita Velez-Mitchell & Anika Paris) warrants support beyond its New York City run at the NYMF. The time for such a production to gain a larger audience is fast upon us because of interest in the historical record of North America’s beginnings and the influences that have helped to shape our nation’s and its territories’ greatness.
Temple of The Souls is grounded in historical fact, and the iconic forbidden-love story between a man and a woman of two disparate cultures is reminiscent of love stories through the ages, from Scotland to Rome. Such stories resonate for us today because of their inherent truths. Love does not see with the materialistic eye, it sees with the heart. Unbounded, love seeks an exalted level away from embedded social folkways that encourage hatred and violence. The triumph of love in unifying nations and dispelling racism, discrimination, and hatred is the key theme of this incredible musical. How worthy, how wise, how current for our times.
Temple of The Souls begins in the present on a tour of the mysterious El Yunque, the magical and gorgeous rain forest in Puerto Rico at whose top, on an outcropping of rock and a high cliff, there is a cave and an area known as the Temple of The Souls. The tour guide (Lorraine Velez) explains the significance of the area. Velez also portrays Nana and her presence as the symbolic earth mother encapsulates beautifully the movement of this production from beginning to end. She is breathtaking, exquisite, poignant, brilliant.
As the guide, Velez tells of the legend of love between Guario, a Taíno (an indigenous native of the island) and Amada, a nubile 16-year-old, whose Spanish father represents all the abuses of Colonial Spain and its goodness as well. When Guario and Amada fall in love, taboos are broken, folkways are destroyed, and the spirits of the island who oversee the history of Spain’s horrific murders, rapes, and enslavements, encourage the melding between old and new: the culture of violent bondage and the culture of pacific freedom, the paternalistic society and the gender-friendly Taíno society of men and women as partners.
The guide shares the history, which underscores that many Taínos refused to bow to the oppression of the Spanish and instead committed suicide by jumping from the cliffs to their deaths in the sea. Suddenly, the scene is transformed. We no longer hear the echoes of the Taínos’ music and drums or see the spirits of the Taínos watching the guide and tourists. We are flashed back to the 15th century in a Spanish colonial settlement on the edge of El Yunque.
It is a colorful, joyful day, the first day of celebration of La Fiesta de San Juan Bautista (marking St. John the Baptist’s announcement and baptism of Christ as the embodiment of love). The celebration is ironic, for the oppressive culture and religion with their discrimination, abuse, and violence toward the Taínos, do not represent the alleged Christian values. However, things begin to change and hope arrives with the union of Guario (Andres Quintero’s singing and acting talent establish him as a rising star; he’s just great) and Amada (Noellia Hernandez’s superb performance, sustained with power and lyricism throughout, is the equal of his).
Guario is a member of the oppressed class who rejects his servitude and goes to El Yunque and the Temple of the Souls to discover who he is. As he travels through the town on the way, he runs into Nemesio (the excellent Jacob Gutierrez) and his cabal of repressive, abusive, and discriminatory Spanish overlords. They threaten Guario and warn him not to return, a command reaffirmed by Amada’s father, Don Severo (the amazing Danny Bolero), the conquistador who governs the town. However, as Guario leaves, he and Amada see one another; it is “love at first sight,” or at the least curiosity at first sight. Nevertheless, the spark is ignited and the burning passion which grows between them creates a cataclysm that engulfs Guario’s, Nemesio’s, Amada’s, Don Severo’s and Nana’s lives and brings about innocent bloodshed that cries out for a cessation which can only be delivered by love.
The next hour and a half flies as we watch the characters struggle with themselves and against each other in conflicts still being experienced today between indigenous populations and “the colonials” – us! From moment to moment we are enthralled with the acting and voices of the fine ensemble, the gorgeous music, the theatrical spectacle, and the intensity of the story’s dynamic between love and hate, lies and truth, oppression and freedom, lasciviousness and genuine, sincere love.
The director and artistic team have filled our senses and one cannot help but be moved to empathy, even to feel for Don Severo (Danny Bolero is commanding, vibrant, appropriately wicked, yet loving in his redemption) and Nemesio (Jacob Guitierrez’s “Nobody Makes a Fool of Me” is superb) who are the chief architects of evil, yet who reveal that they too have compassion and are human.
The sterling balance of humanity which the writers crafted for these characters so that the actors might more easily breathe life into them captures us. We readily identify with them as people we know and take to heart. Each character is rich, each manifests complex shadows of multifaceted good and evil.
The great writing in the book, lyrics, and music helps reveal the multiple themes clearly and simply. One theme is that oppressors ultimately destroy themselves with their own oppression. Another is that no lie rooted in the sickness and wickedness of an external culture should be allowed to separate familial relationships. A third is that there should be no room for divisiveness which embitters and destroys everyone it touches.
These are indelible themes the audience recognizes. Thus, we can walk away inspired but chastened, moved but counseled to reaffirm the love within their own lives. The production above all reminds us of our ancestry – whether it is colonial or indigenous, all of us are related if not by blood, then by empathy as human beings.
Look for this show in the future. If it is produced anywhere near you, see it. You will be uplifted and enlightened and reminded of all that is a blessing in your own life. The Temple of The Souls is wonderful entertainment with a vital message that all of us need to hear and see again and again.