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Theater Review: Return Is a Rewarding Musical Journey

Sonia Levitin’s award-winning juvenile novel Return has been turned into a musical, by the author (who adapted the book and wrote the lyrics), with music by William Kevin Anderson and direction and choreography by Donald McKayle. Now playing at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, Return is, simply put, a delight.

The story itself is not so delightful. It depicts a family’s journey to escape from the poverty, starvation, and persecution of 1980s Ethiopia. Back in late 1984 and early 1985, a secret airlift project, ”Operation Moses,” transported over 8000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The news of this operation reaches a village where Desta, the heroine (Terry Norman), and her sister and brother, live with their aunt and uncle. 

Joas (Jermel Nakia), the brother, persuades Desta to come with him and walk all the way to Sudan, where they will wait for air transport. Desta is engaged to Dan (Tim Brown) but is not overly enthused. She doesn’t want to be subservient to a husband, nor is she happy with the prospect of kowtowing to Dan’s feisty grandmother, Weizero Chana (Paula Bellamy-Franklin).

But local thugs harass the villagers. In the song “Falusha” (alien) they sing to the Jews: “Falusha, falusha/Get out, get out of our land. We buy your wares/but they still bear/ the stink of your Falusha hands!” And after they beat Almaz (Marcella Lewis), Desta’s 13-year old daughter, there is no doubt about it — escape is imperative.

The journey is fraught with perils ranging from insect bites to bandits, from tainted water to family in-fighting. One cannot help noticing similarities to the journeys of people trying to cross the border from Mexico to the States. There’s even a “coyote” (Ed Tillman), who gleefully sings about the “Qat” (an intoxicating plant) that makes him crazy.

The first act builds up to a climax as the villagers realize they must get to a better place. The second act, chronicling the journey, piles problem upon problem and leads to what may seem a bit of an anticlimactic happy ending. But it doesn’t matter, because the journey is made enjoyable by rousing song and dance, as well as by the impressive performances of the cast.

Norman is luminous as Desta. She has played Diana Ross on stage and bears a slight resemblance to her, but possesses a richer singing voice and a more commanding stage presence. The fine singing and acting of Brown and Nakia, both of whom equally share male lead status, beautifully balances her. Lewis displays a maturity that befits her overnight initiation into an adult world. Bellamy-Franklin as Weizero Chana the grandmother, who insists she must travel with the younger people, steals every scene she’s in.

Anderson’s music runs the gamut from traditional theatre music on ballads like Desta’s “Dream” to African-infused numbers, R&B, and hip-hop. The music is pre-recorded, possibly a concession to the Edgemar’s limited floor space, but that’s the better to provide space for the dancing. Some of the ensemble’s dancers are from Venice’s acclaimed Lula Washington Dance Theatre. You may not see better dancing than this in a local show. Against a simple scenery background of blue mountains, light projections, and shadow puppets, the dancers, in African costume, transport us to Ethiopia. And as the stage area comes right down to the front row of seats, it is difficult to be an audience member and have to just sit there and not get up and join in!Return plays at the Edgemar through July 20, as part of the Festival of New American Musicals. Try not to miss it.

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