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'Gospel at Colonus' review: An uplifting, inspiring spin on a Greek tragedy

The Blind Boys of Alabama play Oedipus in

The Blind Boys of Alabama play Oedipus in "The Gospel at Colonus" at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "The Gospel at Colonus"

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Friday-Sunday, Delacorte Theatre, Central Park

INFO Free; go to publictheater.org for information on obtaining tickets

BOTTOM LINE Voices soar in a soul-stirring retelling of the Sophocles tragedy.

The timing was remarkable. When the Public Theater and the Onassis Foundation announced they were bringing back Lee Breuer's soul-stirring 1983 musical "The Gospel at Colonus," they couldn’t have known the play would come at a painful moment of national mourning, opening less than a week after the funerals of John McCain and Aretha Franklin. 

"Let the weeping cease," implores the Rev. Dr. Earl F. Miller (playing the preacher) as the musical closes. "Let no one mourn again. These things are in the hands of God." In this re-imagining of the Sophocles tragedy, he was speaking, of course, about Oedipus, one of literature's most tragic figures. And yet it was impossible not to think back on moments — some devastating, some uplifting — from those recent memorial services.

For ultimately, this is a play of redemption and hope, the qualities that inspired Breuer, who directs, to set the middle play of Sophocles' Theban cycle (after "Oedipus Rex" and before "Antigone") in a Pentecostal church to a primarily gospel score that would have raised the roof of Central Park's Delacorte Theatre if only it had one.

This brief run is a celebration of the 35th anniversary of the play, which initially ran as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's first Next Wave Festival. And as befitting the church setting, the testifying at Thursday's official opening began even before the play started. The Public's artistic director, Oskar Eustis,  introduced Breuer, a man he credits with the "brilliant dramaturgical insights" that let us understand Greek tragedy through the "gospel tradition." J.D. Steele, who plays the choir director, noted this was his 1,379th performance of the work, as music writer Bob Telson said more than half the people on stage had been with the production since its inception.

That would include the renowned gospel group, The Blind Boys of Alabama, who collectively play Oedipus and have since the start. Jimmy Carter, the group's only founding member who remains, leads the four others in portraying the blinded, exiled king, their harmonies as glorious as ever. Powerful vocals also come from Greta Oglesby and Shari Addison as Oedipus' daughters Antigone and Ismene, along with another gospel group, the Legendary Soul Stirrers (playing the traditional "Greek chorus") and the exuberant Voices of the Flame Choir.  

It is a joyous sound that had the audience on its feet well before the final bows. "Lift him up in a blaze of glory," the cast sings, "with a choir of voices heavenly."  To that, there is nothing to say but "amen."

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