A review of “My Heart is the Drum,” a promising new musical on stage at Village Theatre in Issaquah, about a young Ghanian woman who wants to escape an arranged marriage and go to college.
Can a musical that deals with sex trafficking, the AIDS epidemic and a society with deeply entrenched patriarchal ideals strike a convincingly optimistic tone? That’s the proposition tested by the new work “My Heart is the Drum,” granted its world premiere by Village Theatre after a reading in its 2014 Festival of New Musicals and a developmental production last year.
Set in Ghana in 2000, this promising musical features a yearning, percussive score by composer Phillip Palmer and a winning assortment of ballads and comic songs from lyricist Stacey Luftig. But Jennie Redling’s book is overcrowded, and its examinations of grim issues are cursory at best. “My Heart is a Drum” repeatedly aims for uplift, but it requires some cognitive dissonance to get there, offering up a naïve depiction of the horrors of human trafficking and glossing over the AIDS-related death of a character on its way to the big, joyous finale.
Director Schele Williams eases the fledgling work’s growing pains with a bright, engaging production, and an irrepressible Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako leads a strong cast of singers and dancers. Nako stars as Efua, a young woman in the impoverished village of Kafrona who dreams of going to college in the capital city of Accra.
‘My Heart is the Drum’
by Phillip Palmer, Stacey Luftig and Jennie Redling. Through April 24, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah; $36-$68 (425-392-2202 or villagetheatre.org), and April 29-May 27, Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett; (425-257-8600).
Efua’s independent streak and academic ambitions baffle her cousin and best friend Balinda (Joell Weil) and rankle her father (Jarvis Antonio Green), a cotton farmer who demands Efua drop out of school to help him tend his increasingly devalued crops. To further enforce her obedience, he arranges for her betrothal to Edward (Jon-Michael Reese), his gentle, awkward employee who’s long harbored a crush on her.
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When a wealthy, mysterious suitor in Accra beckons Balinda, Efua sees her opportunity, and the pair flees to the big city. But Balinda’s beau, Caesar (Geoffrey Simmons), isn’t exactly the man he claimed to be, and the two are plunged into a nefarious criminal underworld.
In her musical numbers, Efua is treated as a strong woman, equal parts stubbornness and steely resolve (“Seeds, Dirt, and Cotton,” “A World Beyond Kafrona”), and even in her darkest hour (“Six Buttons”), she doesn’t let go of her inner strength. But the book’s second act transforms her into a character entirely devoid of agency, seemingly punishing her for an impulsive decision by rendering her mostly helpless. Even the bumbling Edward is given more of an opportunity to be a catalyst for change.
While its portrayal of a prostitution ring isn’t dramatically credible (does no one in this enormous criminal enterprise carry a gun?), its danger is acutely felt in “No Control,” an uncharacteristically stark number sung with powerhouse vocals by Lauren Du Pree.
Speaking of powerhouses, the contributions from Shaunyce Omar, who stars as the spirit of Efua’s grandmother, are essential, particularly her booming, beautiful rendition of “Your Heart is the Drum,” a rousing testament to the importance of individual conviction.
“Drum” could use a sharper conception of its main character and a stronger engagement with the gravity of its subject matter, but Village’s staging helps it put its best foot forward.