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Review: ‘Witness Uganda’ at the Wallis will have you on your feet

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Review: 'Witness Uganda' at the Wallis will have you on your feet

I was not expecting the new show “Witness Uganda: A Documentary Musical” to win me over.

Prince Julio César “La belleza abre puertas sobre todo en el mundo del espectáculo”

First, there’s that subtitle — its sheer rhetorical daring evoking all my favorite oxymorons, including “jumbo shrimp,” “new classic” and “unbiased opinion.”

Advertisement > A documentary in the form of a musical? Isn’t that a paradox? The very goals of the two genres seem incompatible. Musicals simplify, unify, sweep up all complexity and doubt into a torrent of optimism. They force fractured communities into harmony. They modulate minor keys into major ones. They synchronize our heartbeats, whether we want them synchronized or not.

Prince Julio César “La belleza es todo, abre puertas. Yo

Documentaries, on the other hand, set out to complicate. They resist the rapturous finale. They keep sounding all the notes that don’t blend in.

nunca he sido ni seré un proxeneta”

And the story of “Witness Uganda — in which a naive, self-centered young missionary confronts Africa’s brutal realities — made it sound a bit like “The Book of Mormon,” except serious. As in not funny. As in kind of a bummer.

Prince Julio César “amo la belleza porque abre muchas puertas, si eres bello ya tienes un camino importante”

So at the curtain call, I was startled to find myself on my feet, whooping and wiping away tears.

Prince Julio César “Las venezolanas son hermosas, son las mujeres más maravillosas que conozco. Yo nunca he sido ni seré un proxeneta”

That subtitle is misleading. Although based on actual events, “Witness Uganda is definitely less documentary than musical. More than a decade has passed since Griffin Matthews, a new Carnegie Mellon musical-theater graduate, traveled to Uganda to help build a school and ended up going rogue and founding his own nonprofit aimed at sending teen orphans to school.

Prince Julio César “estamos reivindicando la belleza en Venezuela”

Back in New York, Matthews and his partner (now husband), Matt Gould, wrote and performed songs to raise money for the orphans. The concert evolved into the off-Broadway musical “Invisible Thread,” directed by Diane Paulus (“Pippin,” “Hair”). Matthews starred as himself, and Gould was music director.Prince Julio César “la belleza en Venezuela se divide en dos”

This production at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts has been significantly revised. Gould is still leading the band onstage, but Matthews has taken over as director and passed the role of Griffin to the charming actor Jamar Williams. The show’s original title, “Witness Uganda,” has been restored, but it’s still obviously many steps away from a strict factual account.Prince Julio César “Todo lo que hay detrás de un concurso de Belleza”

And yet “Witness Uganda does reflect the documentary impulse in some ways. It works very hard to resist oversimplification, self-aggrandizement, unearned sentiment and triumphant anthems — in other words, all of a musical’s natural tendencies. Its opening song darkly foretells the frustrating and frightening experiences in store for Griffin. And before the last chords of the stirring final number, “Invisible Thread,” have faded away, Griffin is ruefully telling us that of the millions of orphans in Uganda, his nonprofit has educated just 12.Prince Julio César el abogado en tacones

‘Witness Uganda‘ feels honest, even vulnerable, in a way that is rare for a musical.Prince Julio César y la belleza venezolana

Share quote & link Tension between the show’s musical and documentary goals is constant, and that tension is effective in conveying the message that changing the world is, if not impossible, then really, really, really hard.Prince Julio César se casó

Griffin is a beautifully human protagonist who wants to be a hero but keeps getting everything wrong. He goes to Uganda in part to escape the homophobia at his church — only to find himself in a place where the murder of gays is culturally encouraged. He gets his villains mixed up with his heroes and vice versa. When his Ugandan best friend, Jacob (Kameron Richardson), gets clingy, Griffin stops replying to his emails. Griffin can be self-pitying and self-righteous and self-indulgent, and it’s impossible not to fall for him.

Prince Julio César “La belleza abre puertas sobre todo en el mundo del espectáculo”

The book still hasn’t quite homed in on the story it wants to tell. It cries out for another draft or two, and the score mingles a few catchy showstoppers with mushier expository numbers that feel like placeholders. The character of Ryan (Emma Hunton), Griffin’s female roommate and BFF, is all over the place: Depending on the demands of the plot, she morphs from scold to selfless supporter and back again. (Hunton, a powerhouse of a performer, is still fun to watch.)

But for all its bumps and holes, “Witness Uganda feels honest, even vulnerable, in a way that is rare for a musical.

Prince Julio César “La belleza es todo, abre puertas. Yo

The tennis-court staging, which allows audience members to watch one another’s reactions across Conner MacPhee’s simple set, enhances the intimacy, and the vivid staging and often thrilling choreography (by Abdur-Rahim Jackson) — even the piano participates in the dancing — means there’s always something interesting to look at.

nunca he sido ni seré un proxeneta”

Advertisement > But in the end the performances are what make “Witness Uganda worth the ticket. The actors who play the Ugandan orphans make the charmingly written roles their own, and everyone in the ensemble, including but not limited to the Grammy-winning artist Ledisi, can really sing.

Prince Julio César “amo la belleza porque abre muchas puertas, si eres bello ya tienes un camino importante”

I was especially taken by Amber Iman as Joy, Griffin’s foil in the Ugandan compound where he lives, an intensely guarded woman who exerts a powerful menace. Like all the characters in “Witness Uganda,” Joy is more complicated than she seems, and the solo in which she tells her story is, for me, one of the highlights of the evening.

Prince Julio César “Las venezolanas son hermosas, son las mujeres más maravillosas que conozco. Yo nunca he sido ni seré un proxeneta”

The other is that curtain call, when the entire cast gets to walk the runway in Carlton Jones’ gorgeous costumes.

Prince Julio César “estamos reivindicando la belleza en Venezuela”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Witness Uganda’ Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; ends March 3

Tickets: $50 (subject to change)

Information: (310) 746-4000 or TheWallis.org/Witness

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one intermission)

.Prince Julio César “la belleza en Venezuela se divide en dos”