‘Ascend’ shares the love in world premiere at EPAC

Reviewed by Tony Villecco

Writing a short story can be challenging; writing a research paper can be daunting. But to actually compose a full-scale musical must be something akin to sitting in the dentist’s chair and waiting for the Novocain to kick in. Where to start? How to revise? Months of painstaking workmanship finally giving way to relief and, hopefully, a contented author.

For Ascend, Lori Zabadal-Dayton took on the tasks of playwright, composer and lyricist when most musicals have two or three folks collaborators. She saw her work attain fruition when it premiered this past weekend (June 2-4) at the Endicott Performing Arts Center.

Ascend takes its story line almost entirely from Biblical scripture in both dialogue and song and was presented to a near capacity house on opening night. Focusing on the mystery but promise of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the various scenes showcase the tumultuous times during and after the crucifixion, the puzzlement and fear of the disciples and the ultimate triumph of Jesus’ ascension into Heaven. His message of hope, faith and, most importantly, love, perhaps is even more relevant in the times we currently inhabit.

The show had nine very fine dancers who depicted angels representing both the good and the evil. Their ensemble numbers (the opening in particular) were nicely done. The various dancers also appeared throughout the musical to depict the conflicting emotions of the characters. The choreographer was Marissa Subik.

The small and impressive orchestra was led by Andrew Allport, who managed to keep the singers aligned with the musical score throughout.

Musically, Ascend is a mix of balladry, folk and light classical with an occasional upbeat tempo. While you may not leave the theater humming a memorable tune a la Rodgers and Hammerstein, it still was pleasantly somber in tonality and appropriately reflective at moments that showed humanity at its worst … and at its best.

Lou Ligouri did an effective job at portraying Peter, the apostle who would go on to build Christ’s church and spread his gospel. He sang well and showed the many sides of the apostle from rage to pain and self-loathing. Andrea Gregori successfully conveyed the gentleness and compassion of the Mother Mary, and Joe Foti’s Jesus was a man of compassion and warmth.

Corey Brady was most impressive as Judas, maybe the best vocally in the cast. His attempt to convince the others that he was not the bad guy and purge his own guilt was showcased in the number “I’m Not The Enemy.” Another standout was Christina Taylor as Mary Magdalene. Taylor is a strong vocalist, and the rest of the cast pivoted off her character. Her unwavering faith and belief in the love of Jesus was the thread throughout. When she rejects the advances of Judas, preferring the unearthly and eternal love of the Christ, it becomes a sermon unto itself.

The other apostles all did well: Craig Hawkins as John, Alex Griffin as Andrew and Steve Taylor as James. Alex Bojan was the sadistic guard.

The set was very effective. The tomb which, when lit by the different colors and photos projected on a scrim, took one back centuries to how it may have appeared. The other sets were clean and simple, not detracting from the actors. Pat Foti and Jeff Envid were credited for the set and the costuming was by Stacy Ernst. Envid also did the dramatic stage lighting.

As director, Pat Foti kept the pace moving and the action believable although some of the scenes could have been tightened up or even combined due to their brevity.

Zabadal-Dayton should be very proud of her achievement. While the show is not without its problems, she managed to create an atmospheric and musically appealing piece, and I suspect the audience left with a somewhat lighter burden then when they first arrived. After all, as she reminded the audience time and time again, it’s all about the love.

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