by: Michael Bracken
Given its heavyweight underpinnings, it’s remarkable how lightweight Invisible Thread at Second Stage often seems. “Inspired” by a true story, Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews’s amiable musical takes the sobering issue of poverty in Africa and turns it into a borderline bagatelle. Not with the eviscerating wit or irreverent intention of Book of Mormon, but with a kinder, gentler hand.
Prompted by his boyfriend Ryan (Corey Mach), Griffin (played by co-author Griffin Matthews) tells his church choir that he is gay and is immediately ostracized. He feels a void in his life and quickly decides to fill it by going to Uganda to do charitable work. He digs right in and helps to build a school, only to learn that Father Jim (who runs things but whom we never see) will sell it for personal profit once it’s completed. He befriends Jacob (Michael Luwoye) the gofer within the compound where Griffin stays. Their relationship is weighted with homoerotic overtones that never get expressed by more than an innocent hug.
Griffin also befriends a group of four teenagers from outside the compound, Eden (Nicolette Robinson), Ibrahim (Jamar Williams), Ronny (Tyrone Davis, Jr.), and Grace (Kristolyn Lloyd). They have no money whatsoever but don’t seem to care. For a while, he teaches them and Jacob in an abandoned library. When that situation falls apart, he sends them to a boarding school. Knowing his funds won’t keep them there long, he returns to the US to raise money with Ryan. They get nowhere until Griffin visits his old church where he is now accepted, more or less, and generous donations flow like water. Hallelujah.
What makes Invisible Thread work? Certainly not its simplistic plot. Nor does its tuneful but unremarkable music – soft rock infused with African and gospel – get it over the finish line. But the musical and its characters are eminently likable. It’s hard to get invested in the somewhat predictable story line, but it’s easy to get hooked on the personages who populate the stage. They’re easy to root for. They give the musical’s unlikely twists and turns life.
Dead center is Griffin, naïve and dedicated. Almost too good to be true, Matthews imbues him with energy that seems open and genuine. He shines. Jacob, the play’s darkest character, is quite the opposite. Beaten or whipped by Father Jim and bullied by his sister Joy (Adeola Role), he’s obsessed with returning to New York with Griffin, which of course will never happen.
As Ryan, Mach has a lot to carry, aware of the sexual tension between Jacob and Griffin but still standing by his man in his attempts to get funding. It’s hard to believe he doesn’t jump ship, but he stays committed and makes that commitment believable. The gang of four – Griffin’s pupils – are appealing but awfully accommodating given their supposed street cred. A little more bite wouldn’t hurt.
Darrell Grand Moultrie and Sergio Trujillo’s African themed choreography fails to impress. It all looks the same and lacks (perhaps intentionally) cohesion. Tom Pye’s scenery and ESosa’s costumes evoke a ramshackle diversity. Mismatched ensembles, multi-hued blankets on a clothesline, T-shirts and denim all work together to deliver a panoply of color.
Pye also uses a device –sparingly but effectively – that reminds us we’re still in the digital age. Transatlantic emails are sent and simultaneously transcribed on the floor and back wall. Slightly jarring at first, they’re soon a welcome graphic flourish that underscores the technical divide between the continents.
Diane Paulus’s direction is of the highest order: barely noticeable. She lets Invisible Thread speak for itself. The musical doesn’t dig very deep, but it’s food – comfort food to be sure – for thought.
Through December 27th at the Tony Kiser Theatre (305 W 43rd Street). www.2st.com. 2 hours 5 minutes with one intermission.