NEW YORK (AP) — Is it possible for one person to change the world for the better, even a little bit? This was the question facing young American actor Griffin Matthews in 2005, when he went to Uganda to help build a school.
There he was inspired to help educate a few of the young people he met, and that experience set the scene for the lively, upbeat musical "Invisible Thread," which opened Wednesday night at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre.
Matthews, who plays a character based on himself with casual charm, co-wrote the fictional production with Matt Gould, who also did similar volunteer work. The duo has created iterations of the show, formerly titled "Witness Uganda," that have been shown around the world.
This production is directed by Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus, who helmed the 2014 premiere at Harvard University's American Repertory Theater.
After being dismissed from his church choir for being gay, fictional Griffin unwittingly chooses Uganda for his charitable endeavors, not realizing it's a country that still jails people for life just for being homosexual. As a naive do-gooder, Griffin navigates some local hostility and a corrupt pastor, but manages to find a group of teenage street orphans he might truly help.
The unschooled orphans are given appealing individual personalities by Tyrone Davis Jr., Kristolyn Lloyd, Nicolette Robinson and a sweetly goofy Jamar Williams.
Unbeatable optimism follows as Griffin begins teaching the kids, with the cast and audience swept along by hopeful, melodious songs like "Beautiful" and "Put It All on the Line." Griffin briefly gives in to despair in "New World," but all eventually join in the buoyant, rhythmic "Bela Musana," and the stunning finale, "Njakuwangula."
Paulus stages the energetic proceedings with a careful eye for both small moments and high-voltage, ensemble dance numbers. Limber moves are choreographed by Darrell Grande Moultrie and Sergio Trujillo. Pulsating musical numbers combine a vibrant, layered pop score and earnest lyrics with African beats. Some scenes feel like a mashup of "Fela!" and "Rent," with a little "The Lion King" thrown in. The titular thread is love, described in song as something that "wraps around my heart and wraps around your head."
The book gives a nod to serious issues like corruption, poor medical care, AIDS and bigotry, but comedy and the theme of empowerment run firmly throughout the play. It's a palatable, deeply Western perspective on living in poverty under a repressive government.
The design team effectively conjures up impressions of multiple African locations on a reddish, clay-like surface, from ramshackle buildings to a busy open-air market to a peaceful hilltop. After urging the kids to "put it all on the line/while you still have the time," Griffin eventually learns that not everyone wants to be empowered.
Despite the rosy prism coloring the social issues, this musical has a good heart, and there's no harm in raising awareness to help educate underprivileged kids in Africa.