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Entertainment & Arts

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

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Jamar Williams is the young American who travels to Uganda to help build a school, and Amber Iman is the guarded woman whose story is more complicated that it first seems in the Wallis’ production of “Witness Uganda.”
(Kevin Parry)

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

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

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.

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.

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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.

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

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.

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.

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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.

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.

‘Witness Uganda’ feels honest, even vulnerable, in a way that is rare for a musical.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘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

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

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