Music Bernstein’s Mass received a production worthy of its genius at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, under leadership by Chris Ludwa and Robert Zehr, May 7-8.
Bernstein’s 1971 Mass, created for the opening of The Kennedy Center, is not like any other since the 14th century, when composers began adding the Roman Catholic Mass to their portfolios. While adhering to the form of High Mass in its five major parts, it’s the additional text by Paul Simon, Stephen Schwartz and Bernstein that turns rote faith into questioning, despair, destruction and ultimately wrenching prayer.
The point-of-view spotlights 1960s world and national events. The Celebrant enters clad in shirt and jeans, toting a guitar. He disconnects from being parish-priest-on-the-street as he adds layers of vestments just as the parishioners need him to comprehend their confusion, pain, fears. They don’t want banalities. They want personal issues addressed. They want a God who talks their talk, walks their walk. Theirs is the Celebrant’s discarded “simple song.” They want “real,” not frozen ritual. Carolyn Scanlan’s “alternate sermon” swings the action to the “street people.” Speak to God directly in the rhythm of your selfhood and act as a community for common good.
Ideas drive this operatic circus of daily life, where people walk tight ropes, juggle, do heart-stopping feats. Bernstein pulls this tour de force from the disparate musical bag of Charles Ives and the dramatic focus of Arthur Miller. He fuses a demand, “Attention must be paid” before human-kind destroys itself. “I believe in God, but does he believe in me?”
“From the depths I cry unto you. Let your ears attend me … Grant peace to hold on to.”
The Rev. Brent Wright brought to the role of Celebrant believable emotional depth as well as strong vocal control. Wright experiences a crisis of faith and we are there to witness it. Every other cast member delivered on par. This includes over a dozen soloists, dancers (91st Street Christian Church “Praise in Motion” troupe), St. Luke’s Children’s Choirs, Arts Chorale, Indianapolis Wind Symphony and an orchestra, whose players neither skipped not sweated the ever-changing rhythms of Bernstein’s ranging score.
St. Luke’s Sanctuary was utilized to perfection by Kit Williams and Michael Moffat (lighting and sound) and Minnietta Millard and Sharon Holyoak (floor design and painting). Ellen Kingston’s costumes and Doug King’s choreography were right on the money. Joann Johnson earns special mention as stage manager. You had to be there to appreciate how well she met the challenge.
This definitely was a Godiva-quality, multilayered treat. The guilt is not in the imbibing, but in failing to go beyond “me” in sharing the richness of what has been given humankind.