Invisible Thread: Theater review by David Cote
At-risk, education-deprived teens in one of Africa’s poorest nations. Frustrated musical-theater creators living in Queens. You wouldn’t expect these demographics to meet, much less improve each other’s lives, but they do in the exuberant and soulful Invisible Thread. Based on cocreator and star Griffin Matthews’s experiences volunteering in Uganda over the past decade, the show releases gale-force waves of faith, hope and love every time its hardworking cast joins together on gospel wails or Afrobeat jams. The score (by Matthews and Matt Gould) is bold, fresh and catchy.
But when those bracing numbers (orchestrated by Gould and Remy Kurs and accompanied by Sergio Trujillo’s African-dance-inflected choreography) end, problems begin. The book leavens the realities of African hardship with humor and some complexity but fails to make the central characters—Griffin and his songwriter boyfriend, Ryan (Corey Mach)—rich and dimensional. Instead, your sympathies (perhaps naturally) incline more strongly toward five teens the Americans work to get into school: Ronny (Tyrone Davis Jr.), Grace (Kristolyn Lloyd), Jacob (Michael Luwoye), Ibrahim (Jamar Williams) and Eden (Nicolette Robinson, poised and possessed of an ethereal soprano). These young actors are marvelous and quite convincing as decent but desperate Ugandan youths for whom training as a doctor or accountant could mean the difference between life and death.
Compared to such high stakes, Ryan and Griffin’s first-world problems seem petty, so the focus smartly stays on raising money for the kids. Diane Paulus’s slick and muscular production helps cover up some of the less plausible or airbrushed aspects of the story, which is fictionalized to the edge of slight melodrama. Still, you’d have to be a monster (or a Republican presidential nominee) not to shed a humanitarian tear upon learning how the real teens ended up. Ultimately, even if the writer-heroes of Invisible Thread seem to pat themselves on the back, it doesn’t prevent them from extending a vital helping hand.—David Cote
Second Stage Theatre (Off Broadway). Book, music and lyrics by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews. Directed by Diane Paulus. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.
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