What better way to bring in Holy Week than seeing the gospel opera called “The Word.” Though the play has been performed many times since its 1995 debut it is still one of the Delaware Valley’s best-kept secrets.
Theatre goers can get their chance to see the epic this weekend at Our Lady of Good Counsel’s Msgr. Anthony D’Angelico Cultural Center, 611 Knowles Ave. in Southampton, on April 11 and April 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Composer and playwright Bill Monaghan is also known as a church accompanist and choir director for predominantly African-American churches in the city. Though not African American, Monaghan received his earliest musical training learning chords and arrangements in the blues, R&B and Negro spiritual traditions. He played in a rock ‘n’ roll band while a student at Archbishop Wood High School before graduating from the University of Scranton with a minor in music history.
While performing as a professional rock pianist and lead vocalist Monaghan was called to engage in the music ministry working in young people. Many were not excited about being involved in a church play. That was until they heard the music — an amalgamation of the styles they were used to hearing in hip-hop, rock and other popular songs. It was the hook that had them lined up to perform in “The Word” and continues to engage them.
“I am even bringing back four of the veteran actors who were in the very original play this time,” Monaghan said. “The rest of the cast is comprised of students from a local high school and some first to eighth graders. This is the first time I’ve worked with students younger than the sixth grade so it’s a new twist. But, I want the audience to know they have a great maturity level and they came up to theological the play. Plus there’s a lot of upbeat stuff as well as the agony of the passion.”
One will find that there are all types of songs penned by Monaghan in the play. Besides the tradition African-American gospel styles, there is a song with an Afro-Cuban beat, folk rock, country western blues, R&B themes, and even a little doo-wop. Most of the students are from the Our Lady of Good Counsel School’s Performing Arts Club.
“I see John the Baptist as a fiery personality who is excitedly telling people to come and get baptized,” Monaghan said. “So I have this vocals with a take off a Motown theme. I kind of reverse the chords in the song people say James Taylor stole from Marvin Gaye [‘How sweet it is to be loved by you’]. But, when Jesus comes the music changes because he has a different personality and it becomes a reggae baptism.”
Another original component of “The Word” added this year is sign language. In previous years sometimes different type of interpretative choreography would be added to some of the more mellow selections. Earlier this year some of the students in play were learning from the American Sign Language association. Monaghan though that by signing to the rhythmic beats rather than dancing it would add a new variation. Plus it now expands the students’ ministry into wanting to learn more sign language.
This has personal meaning for Monaghan, too, since he has a cousin who is disabled. At times he and his friends had roles in “The Word”. They were referred to as the “three amigos” and they’d participate in original songs like, “Taste and See,” another Monaghan composition.
“We are just excited about this performance of a gospel opera,” Monaghan said. “This is upbeat and thematically true to the gospel. You see the Old and New Testament unfold with Jesus’ life through his resurrection. There’s even some a cappella doo-wop in there. This is something for all ages, so please bring the whole family.” Curtain time will be 7:30 p.m. promptly. Tickets are $10 at the door. For more information call (215) 357-1300 or visit www.thewordagospelopera.com.
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