Seven months ago, I was one of the lucky few who was invited to the Wallis theatre in Beverly Hills for a preview of what is now this current season of presentations. The showing was kicked-off with a piano-accompanied song from the new musical, Witness Uganda, performed by its creators, Griffin Matthews (who also directed it) and Matt Gould. As much as I admired it at the time, that single two-person tune did not at all portend for me the incredible full show that I just saw on opening night! The whole thing is actually a gigantic, very successful undertaking!
The show has a bit of an odd designation, “documentary musical,” which had me a bit confused because, in my mind, those two entertainments do not go hand-in-hand. But do not let that deter you from seeing it, for even one little second. It’s a wonderful, riveting, worthwhile musical, which just happens to center around some hard real-life facts. But it’s not too painful along the way, and the music must be heard and the performances must be, well, witnessed!
Witness Uganda is based on New York actor Griffin Matthews’ true journey of working tirelessly to educate a group of impoverished teen-agers in Uganda. But it’s also so much more than that. It’s about human kindness, friendship, the struggles of fundraising, and how, shockingly, still frowned upon being gay can be, both in America and the world. And it’s eye-opening about what people worldwide need to do to survive. It’s all portrayed with wonderful music, performed by glorious voices.
Every single actor on that stage, including the talented ensemble, has a great voice, and can really dance, as well. I was an Afro-Jazz major at UCLA, so I really appreciated seeing a show that features this style of dance exclusively. I especially could not take my eyes off Keenan D. Washington when he was moving.
Jamar Williams, who plays Griffin, and is rarely off stage, is adorable. And very talented, in every area. He carries the show, both comedically and dramatically. I just wanted to rush the stage and hug him and tell him it will all be okay. (I did hold myself back, though, which is shocking, I know.) He looked so familiar to me, but the program doesn’t list any credits I could have seen him in, so I don’t know why I really felt that I’ve seen his work before. Hopefully, for both of us, I’m just having a vision of the fame that is to come for him! (Knock on wood, right, Jamar?)
Amber Iman is so emotionally-charged as the protective Ugandan big sis to Griffin’s protege that I was scared to even look in her direction at the after-party! You could hear a pin drop during her soliloquy in Act II, explaining her life to that point. (That’s Amber performing that number at the top of this page, with Jamar Williams.)
Emma Hunton, who plays Griffin’s best friend, can really sing. But I found her disheveled, badly-in-need-of-root-color hair-style to be very distracting. Perhaps the real girl she’s portraying looked like that, making it a character choice, but I would have preferred to concentrate on just her incredible singing chops, because her talent deserves that attention.
My only one slight disappointment in the show is that twelve-time Grammy nominee, Ledisi, does not have a real solo. I was hoping to hear her really wail. Still, to be treated so close-up to even a few lines sung by just her voice is a privilege.
The live music is performed by excellent musicians, led by Witness Uganda co-creator Matt Gould on piano. Their perfect sound fills that space with excitement. The actual songs are all strong, as well.
Speaking of the space, I applaud the versatility of the Lovelace Studio Theater at the Wallis. (It’s the smaller theatre upstairs.) This was the fifth different audience configuration I’ve seen in there in as many presentations! It’s fun to discover just what they’ve done with it each time.
The set for Witness Uganda is very simple but very utilitarian; it’s never boring. And with a baker’s dozen of actors, many on set at the same time, it never feels crowded or uncomfortable.
But I do have to warn you that there is an awfully sharp central light on the stage for the first ten minutes or so, so you might have to avert your eyes during it, but I promise it gets better after that; just hang in there. (Between that in-my-eyes light, which meant I couldn’t look at the stage for that time period, and the awful alcohol breath of someone right near me, I missed the entire set-up for the action to come, because those two situations occupied my mind.)
Before the show even begins, there’s a perfect opening announcement. So, be on time! (Which one should always do, anyway. But I can’t believe how many people in this town have not gotten that memo!)
On a super-shallow note, (have you met me?,) I was proud that I was wearing similar boots and hoop earrings to half the cast. And to much of the hip opening night audience, as well!
Speaking of the audience, I spied Tony Award winner, (for Hamilton,) Leslie Odom, Jr. at the after-party. It turns-out that he’s part of the producing team! That bit of info is not in the program, so aren’t you happy that you read this whole review to find-out that inside tidbit?
Since the musical Witness Uganda is inspired by a real-life tale of altruism, it would be a bonus if seeing the show moves even one person to go out and do good in the world. Even if it does not do that, it should make every audience member at least think about doing so. And a fabulous time will be had along the way.
Witness Uganda running through March 3, 2019
Wallis Annenberg Theater For The Performing Arts—Lovelace Theatre
9390 N. Santa Monica Boulevard Beverly Hills 310-746-4000 www.thewallis.org