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A CurtainUp Review
Invisible Thread
By Charles Wright

There is a long invisible thread / That wraps around my heart / And wraps around your head / Tightening its grip / When things go unsaid / And I can't break free.— Song lyric from Invisible Thread
invisible thread
Griffin Matthews and Michael Luwoye (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Invisible Thread, the rousing new musical at Second Stage, has been in the spotlight since it won the coveted Richard Rodgers Production Award for Musical Theater in 2014. Written by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews and based, to some degree, on Matthews' experiences as a philanthropic volunteer in Uganda and charitable fund-raiser in New York, the show (formerly titled Witness Uganda) has had prominent readings in New York and, last year, a full production at Harvard. With such pedigree, Invisible Thread had no prayer of arriving Off-Broadway without fanfare.

The protagonist of the musical is "Griffin Matthews," played by author Matthews. "My name is Griffin," he says at the outset, "and this is my story." That sounds like the start of a vanity enterprise but, happily, Invisible Thread (directed in New York, as in Massachusetts, by Diane Paulus) is far better than that.

The musical begins in 2005, when protagonist Griffin's acting career is stalled. His candor about being gay is making him persona non grata in the Harlem church choir that has been his great comfort. Ready for a change and curious about his African heritage, Griffin leaves New York to volunteer on a school-building project in Uganda.

Things quickly go wrong. The building project is a hoax; Pastor Jim, the off-stage character who runs it, is a self-dealing rascal. None of the Africans Griffin encounters will acknowledge the African part of his African-American identity; and the Ugandan culture is far less tolerant of homosexuality than the church congregation back home.

Falling into the company of five penniless, streetwise teens (Tyrone Davis, Jr., Kristolyn Lloyd, Michael Luwoye, Nicolette Robinson, Jamar Williams), Griffin learns that in Uganda, primary and secondary education is available only to those with money. On a whim, he begins giving informal lessons to his teenage acquaintances in a derelict library building. Those classes, in real life, were the genesis of UgandaProject — a not-for-profit initiative founded by Matthews and co-directed by Gould — that supports students who otherwise would not have access to education. In the words of a song from the show, UgandaProject "resurrects people" instead of erecting buildings.

Invisible Thread is a traditional book musical featuring a vibrant score with African, African-American, and Broadway sounds. The libretto conveys Griffin's odyssey with utmost economy, one scene blending fluidly into the next. Peter Nigrini's dynamic projections, varied and beautiful to behold, contribute a sense of sweep and momentum and complement Tom Pye's wide, stark scenic design. The exhilarating choreography by Sergio Trujillo (currently represented on Broadway by On Your Feet ) and his co-choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie includes an Act Two tribute to the dream ballets of the Rodgers & Hammerstein era.

The first act of Invisible Thread chronicles Griffin's initial trip to Uganda. The second concerns his struggle to fund the work commenced in Africa and to address, from far away New York, the problems that his proteges encounter. At times, the two parts of the play seem like separate pieces on a double-bill, but the strong musical score mitigates, at least to some extent, that discontinuity.

The late scenes in which the congregation of Griffin's New York church and his Ugandan teens finally accept his sexuality are a bit didactic — special pleading that's unnecessary in the New York City Theater District. But those sequences contribute to an upbeat conclusion for a musical with an abundance of dark moments.

Paulus, Trujillo, and Moultrie collaborate with their design colleagues (and, especially, with ESosa, whose costumes fill the stage with color) to create a spectacle that moves with high velocity throughout. The 15 actors, singers, and dancers perform with relentless energy, and the musical ensemble of nine sounds at times like a full pit orchestra.

At moments, Invisible Thread brings to mind Whorl Inside a Loop, Sheree Rene Scott and Dick Scanlan's non-musical account of a Broadway performer and her students in the arts program of a men's maximum security prison that played at Second Stage earlier this year. But it's both more polished than Whorl and thematically more refined —an exuberant dramatization of the urgency, and the difficulty, of coming to terms with the diversity and the needs of our neighbors, both at home and abroad. If Invisible Thread doesn't fulfil all the expectations aroused by the awards and buzz it attracted as it homed in on New York, it nonetheless doesn't disappoint.

Invisible Thread by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews
Director: Diane Paulus
Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo
Co-choreographer: Darrell Grand Moultrie
Cast: Tyrone Davis, Jr. (Ronny), Kristolyn Lloyd (Grace), Michael Luwoye (Jacob), Corey Mach (Ryan), Griffin Matthews (Griffin), Jeremy Pope (at some performances, Griffin), Nicolette Robinson (Eden), Adeoloa Role (Joy), Jamar Williams (Ibrahim), and Melody Betts, Rodrick Covington, Kevin Curtis, Latrisa Harper, Jason Herbert, Aisha Jackson, Jamar Richardson (Ensemble)
Scenic Design: Tom Pye
Costume Design: ESosa
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Sound Design: Jonathan Deans
Projection Design: Peter Nigrini
Artistic Advisor: Dick Scanlon
Story Consultant: David Goldsmith
Music Supervisor: Remy Kurs
Music Director: Matt Gould
Orchestrations: Matt Gould and Remy Kurs
Music Coordinator: Howard Joines
Associate Director: Shira Milikowsi
Production Stage Manager: Caroly Body Stage Manager: Mallory Hewell
Associate Artistic Director: Christopher Burney
Production Manager: Jeff Wild
General Manager: Seth Spesle
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
Presented by Second Stage Theatre (Carole Rothman, Artistic Director; Casey Reitz, Executive Director), in association with American Repertory Theater (Diane Paulus, Artistic Director; Diane Borger, Producer)
Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street (at 8th Avenue)
From 10/31/15; opened 12/2/15; closing 12/27/15
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a December 3rd press performance
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