Saturday, 18 November 2017

FOR KING & COUNTRY: Tuneful, powerful Queen Esther is a worthy addition to HoLung’s triumphs

THE PLOT THICKENS: Councilmen discussing the Jewish problem; James and Johnson holding court.

ABOVE all, Queen Esther reaffirms Father Richard HoLung’s knack for putting a fresh spin on Old Testament lore, complete with stirring music, a visually stunning mise-en-scene, and crowd-pleasing verve.

The production, now playing at the National Arena in Kingston, is a worthy addition to his large and ever-growing body of work. Aside from the solid, believable performances, the show’s strongest assets are the lighting design by Nadia Roxburgh (which makes P.J Stewart’s set truly a sight to behold) and the musical score, for which HoLung teamed up once again with frequent collaborators Jon and Wynton Williams.

A few months ago when HoLung promised that the production would deliver music smelling of flavours from across the Caribbean, he meant it. Father, who has been penning hymns and praise songs for the regional Catholic Church for years and has a great ear for melody, hasn’t lost his mojo. The commanding blend of voices, beautifully rendered solos and hyper-rhythmic instrumentation go a long way in making this one of the most ear-gasmic shows in recent memory.

With admirable vocal skills and emotional intelligence, young Kristen James steps into the title role and delivers. Her remarkable singing will deeply impress you. Stephen-Rhae Johnson (sharp, commanding) is King Xerxes, the tough Persian ruler who finds that he has a soft spot for the beautiful, virtuous Esther.

But their love story (and Esther’s journey to womanhood and selfless heroics) is a mere fraction of what the story – helmed by co-directors Hugh Douse and Greg Thames – captures. Audiences should brace for some brutal stuff, exploring such themes as persecution, conspiracy, betrayal and killing of the innocents. At the height of the action, Persians seeks to exterminate the Jewish population – and the king, accused by his subjects of being indecisive in such matters, is made to feel the pressure. 

James and Johnson are not the only ones who shine in their roles. Leighton Jones gives a bravura turn as the vengeful advisor Haman, while Rohan Jacques, a robust baritone, is effectively cast as Mordecai, the lowly carpenter who adopts Esther as an orphan, finds favour with the king and becomes Haman’s sworn enemy.

Sparks fly and tempers flare but love, honour and devotion to king and country conquers all. Our only quibble? The dialogue occasionally falls flat. But that takes nothing away from the Queen Esther's overall success. 

The costumes are gorgeous (especially the royal wardrobe) and the talented actors wear them stylishly well. But it’s the music that’s really the thing. Highlights include grand numbers like “Our Eyes Are on You Lord,” “Okay, Okay,” and “Rejoice My Soul,” which brings the show to a triumphant close. Tyrone’s Verdict: B+

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