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'Jonah' More Ministry Than Theater

New dinner theater focuses on message.

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The crew of the ship for "Jonah Live on Stage Picnic."

A new dinner theater calling itself the New Horizons Theater has set up shop on Mount Vernon Memorial Highway near the intersection of Route 1 and has opened a new show, "Jonah Live On Stage."

The company proclaims in its program that it is "not just a theater, it is a ministry." Those who seek entertainment, cultural expression and social enlightenment – the traditional aims of the theatrical arts – in the place where those arts are practiced usually see it as something more than "just" a theater. Still, there is a long tradition of the use of theater to spread religious messages.

Good intentions, of course, buy much good will from an audience that approaches the entire experience as much as a combination sermon and church outing as a show. Still, even granting as much good will as possible, "Jonah Live On Stage" is a major disappointment.

This is the third production of the company, so the shortfalls of the show cannot be dismissed as start-up pains. What is more, the company has the talents of at least one professional who is a member of the national union of actors, Actors’ Equity, and another who has impressed in performances at other professional venues in Northern Virginia.

These talents can’t rescue this amateurish, if energetic, evening from being so visibly less than it aspires to be. This has to be attributed to the writer and director of the show who is also the artistic director of the company.

Chris McGriff’s script tells the biblical story of Jonah whose reluctance to support the destruction of Nineveh results in his being swallowed up by a great fish, and ultimately, vomited up on the shore, where he is finally shown that he has saved the city from the wrath of God.

Theatrical settings of biblical stories have been successful on stage, both in dramatic treatments such as "JB," based on the story of Job, and in musicals. Just think of "Jesus Christ Superstar" or "Godspell." But this musical, sort of a "Go Go Jonah," fails to explore the interesting features of the characters and actions of the story in its quest to deliver its religious teaching.

McGriff places much of the action on something that appears to be a pirate ship, but which is plying commercial routes, taking a shipment of linen and wine to Tarshish. Jonah stows away on board to avoid his God’s wrath, but is taken by a band of thieves masquerading as a crew. They throw him overboard where the "great fish" finds him.

Much is made of the "special effects" which are featured in the production. Indeed, some advertisements refer to the show as "Jonah Live On Stage Whale Water And All." While they do manage a satisfactory rain effect on the low-ceilinged stage and the set of the ship’s deck is well done, other effects and settings are lamentably amateurish, especially the use of a bubble machine to create the first storm effect and a single painted sheet to represent the belly of the beast.

Music and lyrics are by Daniel Spruill. His melodies are serviceable while his lyrics are simplistic and predictable. The tunes are supported by a highly amplified synthesized accompaniment and sung with gusto, if not always with an accurate sense of pitch by a cast of sixteen. Eight of the sixteen are children performing as "The Bad Assyrians" and they perform in the manner of an enthusiastic school class.

Jobari Parker-Namdar, who was impressive in his recent appearance at MetroStage in "The Stephen Schwartz Project," is sadly underutilized here in the title role and David Lamont Wilson, who has been a feature among smaller professional troupes in the area for a number of years, mugs his way through the lame comedy as the captain of the sailing ship.

Only Quinten DeAnglio Warren as the ship’s first mate really manages to make much of his role, while a very young Anthony Davis (a sixth grader from Centerville) is a chipper King of Nineveh. However, at the performance reviewed, his microphone kept cutting out at unfortunate moments. This was especially unfortunate when it failed just as he was reaching the heights of oratory, declaiming "People of Nineveh – Hear my voice!" Most of the audience behind the front dinner tables couldn’t hear his voice.

The performance takes place on a stage set up at the end of a long meeting room called the Royal Room of the Agape Building, home of the Alternative Paths Training School of Alexandria and two local churches. The low ceiling doesn’t allow the elevation of the stage, and since the floor of the room is level, only about fifteen of the two hundred or more seats at round tables have a clear view of the action. A full buffet meal is offered prior to the performance.

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (<a href=http://www.PotomacStages.com> www.PotomacStages.com</a>). He can be reached at<a href= mailto: Brad@PotomacStages.com> Brad@PotomacStages.com</a>.

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