New Musical WITNESS UGANDA Educates and Entertains (4 Stars)

WITNESS UGANDA – Created by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews; Directed by Diane Paulus; Produced by the A.R.T. at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge through March 16th

Can the world of Musical Comedy be a vehicle for change? And is it possible for one person to affect change in the world at large? Those are the big questions behind the new musical WITNESS UGANDA, now having it’s world premiere at the ART in Cambridge. Under the direction of Artistic Director (and Tony “Best Director” award winner) Diane Paulus, the answer is a solid yes.

WITNESS UGANDA grabs and holds our attention over the course of its two and a half hours, with soaring music, dance and storytelling. It’s the true tale of “Griffin” (co-author Griffin Matthews plays himself) and his journey to Uganda and back, setting him on a path leading to annual Ugandan trips to visit the students that he sponsors through the Uganda Project, the organization he created to bring aid and education to Uganda.

It’s a real “fish out of water” story. Griffin is narrator and protagonist, as he takes us back to 2005, when, as an out-of-work gay actor, he volunteered to go to Uganda on a teaching mission. What he finds leads him to set up his own “rebel” classroom, with orphaned teens as his students. Offstage, there is the ominous presence of the missionary known only as “Pastor Jim” and his crushing dominance over the people in this compound, which Griffin tries to understand. The story unfolds as he learns more about the bureaucracy and corruption in the organization sponsoring him, and goes on to develop his own aid organization.

Paulus’s staging makes use of cinematic techniques of cross-fading and montages projected onto the back wall, taking us from Manhattan to Uganda and back. The deceptively simple setting, a square platform that performers play on and around, becomes the various locales by utilizing projections and soundscapes.The projections fill the back wall with the gorgeous colors of an African sky, vistas of Lake Victoria, as well as marketplaces and impoverished homesteads.

The vibrant choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie uses the movements and rhythms of African dance, performed to a score by Matt Gould that is a fusion of “Broadway Rock” and Luganda, the music of Uganda. Gould conducts a 7-person band and plays keyboards, as well as having arranged and orcestrated his music. A six-person chorus, dressed in traditional and contemporary Ugandan wardrobe by Esosa, serves to represent the Ugandan people, their culture, and the sharp contrast to Griffin and his background. They also help create the transitions from scene to scene, and add dramatic tension through their singing and dancing, and provide powerful vocals in an Act Two gospel-inspired song set at a Manhattan choir meeting.

At A.R.T., Diane Paulus has developed revivals (THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS, PIPPIN) that have gone on to Tony-award winning Broadway productions. This time, she and the company have developed a new musical on it’s path to Broadway. I, for one, enjoy the opportunity to see a new form, a musical that hopes to inspire and raise awareness about the need for each of us to “Be The Change” we want in the world.
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to see the first preview as well as the opening, and I saw some positive changes that went into the show we saw open. After the curtain call, the audience is invited to stay for a brief “talk back”, with Griffin, Gould and members of the community. See the show, and make plans to stay for the post-show. For more info, go to: