Review: Carnival Messiah (2004)

I had heard all the buzz, and I’d read the awful deconstructions in the press, and was eager to see how I felt about Carnival Messiah. As I expected, I could see where the strong feelings for and against the production had originated.

The programme described it as a ‘two-hour spectacular’, but in reality, it was some three and a half hours later that I made my exit from the Queen’s Hall auditorium. There were sections which seemed too long, and sequences which seemed altogether superfluous. It could have been scaled down to the billed two hours, capitalising on the ‘spectacular’ elements of the production, and eliminating weaker parts.

Take, for example, the inclusion of components which are not indigenous to Trinidad Carnival. Think hip-hop samples (mainly from the resident DJ), the jarring Latin American and Russian flavourings, the Elvis cameo in ‘Whoopi Band Melody’ and, to a lesser extent, the dancehall-infused music, courtesy Ataklan.

In short, Ms. Connor’s intentions, as much as I admired and appreciated them, seemed muddled. It seemed her ambition to be all-inclusive took so much on board simultaneously that the production often struggled to work as a cohesive unit, rather than a collage or pastiche. The spiritual parallels between ethnic and religious groups, the re-telling of the life, death and resurrection of Christ through (contemporary?) Carnival rituals and other popular forms, while trying to combine the Messiah music and structure with this new setting…. I’m not sure that it is possible to do all of them justice in one production.

After a visually appealing but static Act II, the biggest questions for me came after (and during) Act III. I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening, or why it was happening — the Minstrels cursory dispatch of the Resurrection notwithstanding. The ‘How Beautiful are the Feet’ section (only the third of five major inclusions of Handel’s score in the production) seemed completely unrelated to either the Messiah structure or to the Trinidad Carnival theme. No doubt, too, Christianity did spread worldwide (over the next two millennia) — but did that need to be included in Carnival Messiah, and in the middle of telling of Christ’s rising from the dead?

The minstrels, too, seemed (as one would expect) more adept at comedy than the more sombre tone they were required to create in the first of their sections in Act III. But this was soon carted aside by perhaps the most outrageous section in the production. Donning boleros and sombreros, out they came singing of miracles (many already covered in the first half). There was some mention of Venezuela (either before or after the Russian dancing), though I had to wonder whether we were actually in Pamplona or Mexico… What on earth does this have to do with the Messiah — or with Trinidad Carnival? Then the National Steel Orchestra, noticeably absent until now, was awkwardly dragged in on a platform from backstage to play the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, the last re-set Handel import. And here I would have to agree with Mr. Minshall (from his now infamous criticism in the newspapers) — with a couple hundred human beings offstage, why was there no singing with this?

Nevertheless, there were aspects of this production which were magnificent. And all credit to Geraldine Connor, the production really did live up to all promise as being a true spectacle and feast for the eyes. And for the ears: Ronald Samm — the voice powerful, stirring, showing unending amounts of colour and texture — was superb. His every movement, too, was pure theatre. The young dancer who performed during Samm’s solo, ‘Redeemer’, was also absolutely breathtaking. Ella Andall: exquisite. I have admired her artistry since first hearing her at Calypso Fiesta semifinals in 1997. I long to be able to see her in performance again. Carol La Chapelle’s choreography worked well, and the company’s dancing was commendable: they were tight and synchronised. Wayne Berkeley’s sets were wondrous, and the majority of costumes designed by Peter Minshall, oops…I actually am not sure from the programme who designed the costumes, but in any event, they were by and large quite beautiful — and clearly Minshall-esque. The lighting was top-notch. On the production site, there was virtually nothing to take exception to.

One could not speak of the strengths of Carnival Messiah without giving a nod to the minstrels. It was here that most of the actual story of the biblical story actually was told, and with superb comedic performances from the minstrel band. The dialogue was sharply written, and the comedic timing of the group was outstanding. Nigel Scott, Nigel Wong, Maxine Williams, Ben Fox, Llewelyn McIntosh (aka Short Pants) and Glenda McSween (who also showcased her singing talent in the second half) complemented and played off of each other wonderfully. Together with the ‘J’Ouvert’ prologue to Act I, the minstrels — dramatically — were the strongest part of the show (Act III notwithstanding).

Carnival Messiah came to a close on Tuesday, and no doubt die-hard fans and unimpressed critics will continue to talk about it until something else comes along. And that is my great hope now: that something else does come along very soon for people to talk about and debate, for the creative community to be involved in, for patrons to love — or hate. I hope too that all the foreign-based talent will find more and more opportunities to come home and perform on home soil. I hope that an increase in musical productions will also drive better opportunities for young people to become trained musicians, both on the steel pan and in classical instruments, so that we can have a reserve of instrumental talent to complement the performing talent we have in the country.

Most of all, Carnival Messiah made me nostalgic for Ole Mas, making me lament a little that I’ve grown up in a generation which has not experienced Mas where the traditional carnival characters ruled the streets, unencumbered. If you are lucky and know where to look, you can still see them at Carnival time, but they are fewer and further between. The production reminded me of how beautiful the diverse cultural heritage of this country is, and I only hope we continue to nurture people from all walks of life and with every dream conceivable, so that they stay and reach their fullest potential.

To the cast of Carnival Messiah, congratulations on your hard work, and to all the Geraldine Connors out there: go tru’ hard.

Update & full disclosure: I met and worked with members of this cast after moving back to Trinidad in 2006, including Ella Andall — for whom I sang backup, including on her Osun Ba Mi Se CD. Some of these performers became dear friends — and my cast members when I performed in the Harewood House (Leeds) production of Carnival Messiah in 2007, three years after first seeing the Trinidad production and writing this review.

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