New Venture Theatre is bringing “Shout!” to church.
Many who attended the first two productions of Greg Williams Jr.’s musical tracing the history of gospel music have walked away from the show feeling uplifted. But they were watching it in a theater.
Audiences will be sitting in Gloryland Baptist Church this time around.
“Last year, Gloryland Baptist came to one of the shows,” says Williams, who also is New Venture’s founder and artistic director. “They loved it so much that they wanted us to come to their church when we performed it again.”
New Venture is staging “Shout! A Good News Musical” for the third time, beginning Thursday, May 7. And it’s not the same production staged three years ago.
“It’s evolved,” Williams says. “When we first performed it at Independence Park Theatre, and I focused on African-American education and re-energizing ourselves.”
When New Venture performed the show again in 2014 at the Manship Theatre, children became a part of the story.
“I added kids who needed to hear this story from their family,” Williams says. “This year, the story focuses on the family, and though gospel music is primarily a story about African-Americans, the story shows how it has impacted all cultures.”
But Williams reminds his audiences that though “Shout!” is expressive in music and presentation, it’s still a theatrical production.
“You’ll get the church experience, but this is still a musical,” Williams says. “I think Gloryland was surprised when we came in with the sets.”
Williams began developing “Shout!” after attending a 2011 performance by the Heritage Choir. Then, in 2012, he produced a contemporary gospel concert with a friend.
“It was through this music that I saw the struggle, and how contemporary music celebrates how far we’ve come,” he says. “I realized that the story of the black experience is documented in these songs.”
Williams listened to gospel music, then consulted members of local gospel choirs about choosing selections for the show. He also never lost sight of the fact that gospel music is founded in Christianity.
“It’s a form of praise and a celebration of faith,” Williams says. “We take this mix of praise and history seriously.”
Last year, Williams expanded the show’s musical selections by adding gospel arrangements by Moses Hogan, an African-American composer best known for his arrangements of spirituals.
Looking at the time period, Williams has said he learned that African Americans had their music stolen from them through vaudeville, “and they took it back in the civil rights period.”
This year, Williams highlights the civil rights period with David Sylvester’s original composition, “Frontline.”
Sylvester played the minister, called “Pastah,” in last year’s production. This year, he’s the show’s music director, while April Louise, who played the lead in previous years, is directing.
“It’s different for me, because I was looking at the show only through the eyes of Sista Eloise, but now I have a bird’s-eye view,” Louise says. “I love being able to input my personal vision into this show and to bring this group to the next level.”
“And it’s definitely not the same show from when it started out,” Sylvester adds. “I wasn’t in the first show, but I went to see it. I was in the second one.”
That’s when Williams heard Sylvester playing his original compositions on the piano between rehearsals.
“I loved what I heard, and I met with David last year and told him that though I loved using the old, legendary songs to tell this story, I also wanted to remake the show for a new generation,” Williams says. “He wrote five songs, and ‘Frontline’ is performed on the backdrop of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. David’s stuff is so powerful that it could go on Broadway today.”
“Words can’t explain how I feel,” Sylvester says. “It’s like I’m having a meltdown. Before this, I loved writing music, but to see it couple with someone’s idea — there’s nothing like it. I connected to this story long before my music became a part of it, but now I’m seeing the evolution.”
It doesn’t stop there. Dancers will take the stage, choreographed by Christian Simon.
“This will be my first full show to choreograph,” she says. “I started dancing in church, so I’m excited to be able to choreograph a gospel show, to go back where I started.”
As for Williams, he knows “Shout!” will never go back to where it started. He laid the foundation for it, and the show has almost taken a life of its own.
“It’s interesting to watch something that I’ve written change and evolve,” he says. “It’s been a great experience.”