Musical fable ‘Jonah’ both entertains and uplifts

Nick Sulfaro, center, and the cast of  Stoneham Theatre's "Jonah and the Whale." Photo: Maggie Hall

Nick Sulfaro, center, and the cast of Stoneham Theatre’s “Jonah and the Whale.” Photo: Maggie Hall

STONEHAM – There’s no falling chandeliers, cats in costume or flying witches. But musicals come in all shapes, sizes and styles, and the Stoneham Theatre’s production of “Jonah and the Whale” is a gentle musical fable, winningly performed by both cast and musicians.

The biblical story of Jonah is revamped to tell the story of the journeys and travails of a small-town man lost after the death of his wife in childbirth.

Jonah (Taavon Gamble) is a skilled workman, adept at fixing whatever needs to be fixed, be it a window, a vacuum cleaner or the huge clock that towers over the town square. He is an integral part of a small but loving community where everybody knows your name.

Jonah lives with wife Susan (Sarah Elizabeth Pothier), who announces one morning that she is pregnant; Jonah goes forward that day with a “shine” about him that everyone recognizes.

Jonah and Susan prepare joyfully for the birth and when the doctor (David Jiles Jr.) approaches Jonah in the waiting room with what is assumed to be the good news, the look on Jonah’s face says it all. He became both a father of a son and a widower at almost the exact same moment.

The community closes ranks around Jonah, including his sister-in-law Ruth (Marge Dunn), but Jonah is disconsolate and clueless about how to connect with and care for his son.

Susan appears, vows never to leave him and reappears several times afterwards at key moments in the production.

Members of the cast play multiple roles and never leave the stage; with the ensemble nature of the production, the musical numbers are not attributed to certain characters, as they are a group effort.

There are frequent Stoneham visitors returning, including Christoper Chew as Jonah’s well-meaning friend named George and a revivalist preacher; Nick Sulfaro as the caring hometown pastor; hometown heroine Kathy St. George, whose turn as the captain of a riverboat is a hoot; and Ilyse Robbins, who both choreographs and performs in the cast, reminding us of her considerable skills in that area.

David Jiles Jr. is Guppy, a self-confessed murdered who helps Jonah find refuge on a riverboat , while Dunn brings heart to Ruth, Susan’s sister who steps into the breech after her sister’s death.

Taavon Gamble and Sarah Elizabeth Pothier in "Jonah and the Whale." Photo: Maggie Hall

Taavon Gamble and Sarah Elizabeth Pothier in “Jonah and the Whale.” Photo: Maggie Hall

Since the musicians join in as singers and sometime characters, they are also listed as part of the cast. Music Director Bethany Aiken plays piano, cello and the melodica; Ian Conway performs two parts and plays the guitar while Eddie Pizzano is on percussion and John Styklunas on bass.

The book by Tyler Mills and the score by David Darrow and Blake Thomas complement each other. The musical numbers – pop, bluegrass and folk – are more “stand alone” than used to advance the plot. They celebrate or comment on the action; they are pleasing, often funny pieces of music.

“Jonah” benefits from glorious voices in the lead roles: Gamble – part of a wonderful cast in the recent “The Scottsboro Boys” at Speakeasy Stage — as Jonah and Pothier as Susan.

But Chew is also in fine voice as a preacher, as are Jiles and others, including Kirsten Salpini, who also finds time to contribute on piano.

The striking set by Katheryn Monthei uses scaffolding, dropped lamps, and a ladder in the center that leads upward to a clock, all mounted on a turntable that allows the action to revolve.

Jonah is aboard for the last voyage of the Golden Eagle and the storm that may take Jonah – or save him – is described musically in “Comes the Storm” and the subsequent “Lord, Am I Dying?”

In the concluding “Prayer” the players ask “God, give me the time to grow old.”

Stoneham Theatre Artistic Director Weylin Symes has cast the show well and played to the strengths of his players, and it moves apace under Robbins’ carefully-crafted movement.

“Jonah and the Whale” is a new take on an old tale that will entertain you, move you, and uplift you, and that’s a lot to get done in 90 minutes.

The Stoneham Theatre production of “Jonah and the Whale.” Book by Tyler Mills. Music by David Darrow and Blake Thomas. Orchestrations by Robert Frost. Directed by Weylin Sdymes. Choreography by Ilyse Robbins. Music direction by Bethany Aikman. Scenic design by Katheryn Monthei. Costume design by Deidre Gerrard. Lighting design by Christoper Fournier. Sound design by John Stone. At the Stoneham Theatre through March 12. stonehamtheatre.org.

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