“We tell each other stories, so that we will remember.”
This weekend, the Twin Ports Choral Project is doing a pair of encore presentations of the oratorio “Considering Matthew Shepard” at the NorShor Theatre. Thursday night’s dress rehearsal made it obvious why they are giving more people an opportunity to experience this moving story.
Beautiful music, singing and dancing all work to make “Considering Matthew Shepard” a powerful piece of rhetoric.
The oratorio begins with “Cattle, Horses, Sky and Grass,” a tone poem establishing the open spaces of Wyoming.
To his parents, Matthew was Matt. His plaid shirt lies on the fence where he was left to die. At times, that shirt is worn by different singers and a dancer, as each becomes Matt for those moments.
The soloists are not identified in the libretto. The words and the music — and Matt — are what matter.
“Ordinary Boy” is one of two moments when Matt gets to sing in his own voice (“In Need of Breath” is the other), providing a list of the things he loved, some of which are inevitably things we ourselves love, establishing both his universality and crucial connections between him and us.
“We Tell Each Other Stories” could have been the opening, but “Considering Matthew Shepard” pointedly fleshes out Matt as a person before his death overshadowed his life.
The details provided in the recitations framing the songs do not go far beyond what everybody knows, but set the stage for each musical meditation. The sheriff’s deputy who first reported to the scene saw a large doe lying near Matt, leading to “Deer Song,” where two dancers play out what is being sung.
The story becomes unstuck in time. The trial verdicts come before the visitations to the spot where Matt died in the days and weeks following his death.
Composer Craig Hella Johnson’s music blends everything from Country & Western to Gregorian chants, developing myriad ways of juxtaposing words and music for strategic purposes.
The discordant music behind the hateful words of “A Protestor” undercut their power. The statement to the court made by Matthew’s father is spoken, delivered in a slow and measured manner, so it is those words and not a parent’s raw emotions that elevate its eloquence.
Any of the four parts of the epilogue could have been the final powerful piece as Johnson turns to the uniquely American forms of sacred music. The glorious “Meet Me Here,” with Matt’s mom as the soloist, holding on to his plaid shirt, is a cathartic spiritual.
“All of Us” goes from gospel to what sounds like Copeland, providing the oratorio’s benediction — “Only in the Love, Love that lifts us up” — and defying the audience not to break the proscription against applauding until the piece is concluded.
Then we are back to a reprise of the beginning, coming back full circle to another ordinary boy. And then what happens?
The circle must be broken.
If you go
What: Twin Ports Choral Project’s “Considering Matthew Shepard”
Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 21-22
Tickets: $25 at northshortheatre.com
Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the News Tribune.