By Roger Emanuels
THE STORY OF MATTHEW SHEPARD, the gay young man tortured and left to die in the Wyoming countryside has been told in books, film, poetry, song, stage play, television and documentaries. A musical production, Considering Matthew Shepard, is now playing at the Crocker Theater at Cabrillo College. It’s a recent work for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, composed by Craig Hella Johnson and premiered in 2016. Often referred to as an oratorio, it is usually performed in concert. The Cabrillo Music and Theater Arts Departments have taken on the work by adding costumes, acting and scenery in a stunning production by Cheryl Anderson, music director and Joseph Ribeiro, stage director.
A cast of 51 singers is a lot of people to move about and still keep the singing tight. Movement is minimal, never static, but just enough to create and maintain a fluid landscape. These local folks of the mountain region dress in their everyday work clothes and interact with pleasantries. Even as they were spread over the width of the stage, the chorus sound was clean, unified and resonant. There is plenty of fine solo and ensemble singing too. Johnson’s score contains music weaved from a variety of musical sources. The opening cowboy song sets the scene. Later, a jazz vocal quartet is performed with just the right pizazz. Other references are to popular music with even a hint of African rhythm.
Composed in three sections, Prologue, Passion and Epilogue, Johnson shapes the work similar to the Passion oratorios composed by JS Bach in the 18th century. The play opens with Bach’s Prelude in C Major. A Lutheran hymn, common in Bach’s music, comes at the end. The Passions tell about the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Through Johnson’s choices of texts, he creates a work of suffering, death and redemption. The texts are from Lesléa Newman, Hildegard of Bingen and Gabriela Mistral, among others.
The scene on stage is in the countryside near Laramie, Wyoming, a field where Matthew was left to die. Scenic designer Skip Epperson created a minimal set that allows endless variation with lighting. A meandering split rail fence becomes Matthew’s place of crucifixion. At one point, the fence rises up and closes into a circle, suggesting the crown of thorns worn by Jesus. The only other object, except for a few boxes and bales of hay, is a blob of a cloud on the back wall. Later in the play the blob lowers and becomes the distant hills, enhanced by ever changing lighting choices. It is visually stunning and believable. Three songs use words from the fence where Matthew was tied and tortured, “I held him all night long, I cradled him like a mother.”
In the “Stars” piece, Matthew’s father makes a statement to the court after the tragedy. The lighting effects, evoking a night sky throughout the theater, were beautiful. The instrumental ensemble of strings, clarinet, guitar and piano enhanced the vocal lines. Some lovely piano solos, played by Leah Zumberge, connected the scenes.
Following the story of this 100-minute work is a challenge, and benefits greatly from reading the libretto in advance. It is easily available online through a search. The supertitles provided were minimally useful and varied in quality of projection. Much of the time they were not readable from my seat.
The music progresses gently throughout the two acts. In melody and harmony it is very attractive music, seldom approaching avant-garde techniques, with just enough piquant dissonances to give a fresh sound. It is mostly gentle, soothing music that belies the underlying drama of the story. As I was unable to read enough of the supertitles in the first half, too much of the narrative impact passed me by.
On a dramatic level, Considering Matthew Shepard is a powerful work with a strong emotional punch. As music director Cheryl Anderson says, “It is a timely story and one that encourages us to reawaken our love for the appreciation of one another beyond the boundaries of race, ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual orientation, gender definition, economic background or age. It invites us to take a stand for love, forgiveness, understanding, and justice.”
There is much to enjoy in this production. Cheryl Anderson and Joseph Ribeiro have created a musical stage work of great beauty with wonderful singing.