Only Heaven: BackStage, 2001

Ricky Ian Gordon's "Only Heaven" is neither a musical nor an opera. He himself has called it a cantata. Whatever this 90-minute through-composed setting of lyrics by poet Langston Hughes is called, it is an extraordinary performance that—because of its unique form—will be caviar to the general.

Encompass New Opera Theatre first presented "Only Heaven" in 1995. The current, expanded version contains several new songs and an additional character. Conceived by the composer and director Nancy Rhodes to a scenario by Rhodes, "Only Heaven" is a setting of 27 poems by Hughes, taken from the 1920s and '30s, grouped by theme: joy, love, heartache, suffering, etc. The current production divides the material between four singers and two dancers.

Under the musical direction of Charles Prince, conducting a chamber orchestra, a quartet of singers give the best sung musical performance to be heard this theatre season. Most outstanding are soprano Monique McDonald and baritone Michael Lofton, who bring a heartbreaking emotional depth to their numbers. Soprano Sherry Boone and tenor Keith Byron Kirk add a lighter side to their equally heartfelt songs. Seen only briefly, Whitney V. Hunter and Monique Rhodriquez dance Fran Kirmser's beautiful choreography inspired by Agnes De Mille, Antony Tudor, and Alvin Ailey.

Rhodes' direction does not give the material a plot, but it does give the work a shape. If the intention is to capture the Harlem Renaissance, Erik Ulfers' elegant setting, which resembles an upper class picnic in a wheat field, seems strangely at odds with the concept. However, the unobtrusive lighting by Chenault Spence always directs the eye to the focal point.

Gordon's intricate, rousing score seems an advance over his musical, "Dream True," last season. This is a timeless, moving musical evening. It should have a long life after this production.

– Victor Gluck, BackStage, 2 Febraury 2001