Latino version of Spirit premiered by Southern California corps.

by Jeff Curnow –

Cast members perform.

On Sunday, May 4, the sold-out crowd at Los Angeles (LA) Central Corps began to clap impatiently as they waited for the world premiere of Espiritu!, the Latino version of the musical, Spirit! Months of preparation, prayer and practice by members of Latino corps from throughout Southern California were about to be put to the test.

Back stage, in the bustle of last-minute costume adjustments, microphone tests and the application of makeup, prayers—in Spanish and English—asked that God would use all of the preparation to bring the message of the book of Acts to the audience.

Finally, the house lights dimmed and dramatic opening chords sounded as the cast entered. Applause gave way to expectant silence as the presentation began.

From Spirit! to Espiritu!
The musical, Spirit!, written by (then)Majors John Gowans and John Larsson in 1973, is based on the book of Acts and centered on events in early Christian church history.

The original musical is the most widely produced of all the Gowans and Larssons musicals. It has been performed in many different languages, including Spanish, before, but Espiritu! features all new Latin-style music and is set in a present day “city like Los Angeles.”

Bandmaster Kevin Larsson, music director and Karl Larsson, stage director, who conceived and produced this version, are the sons of (Ret.) General Larsson.

As the Southern California divisional music director, Kevin leads a “Latino Choir” with members from the division’s 12 Latino corps. Kevin says, “I was looking for music for the choir when I found the Spanish version of Spirit! and thought that it might be good idea to put it on. From that point on the ideas got bigger and bigger—maybe I can ‘Latinofy’ the songs a little…maybe a lot!

“I just thought that doing Espiritu! would be something that most would never have the opportunity to do, something that would bring the Latino corps together, something that would live on in memories for years to come…. Then, I talked to my brother, Karl, and asked him to be the director.”

It’s a great story, and the musical has been a favorite in The Salvation Army for years. While many people worked hard to get Espiritu! started, all the credit for realizing this new version belongs to the members of the various Latino corps in Southern California. Most of the cast had never acted before, or dreamed that they would be in a production like this.

This was not a “good, for-a-bunch-of-first-time-actors-production,” or a “good-for-a-Salvation-Army-production.” No. Espiritu! was proclaimed by (Ret.) General Larsson as “The most excellent production of Spirit! that has ever been performed!”

Hard work
Getting things started, Kevin recalled, was tough; “There were difficulties during the first rehearsals. A few times, I contemplated canceling the whole thing.” Nevertheless, the cast persevered, and working from two different rehearsal venues, LA Central Corps and Santa Ana Temple, they rehearsed biweekly until January when weekly rehearsals began.

“In March we began to put everything together, which is when Karl really took over. I had no idea of the grand scale he had in mind. He’s so creative and really made the production come alive.”

Karl admits that the task was almost overwhelming; “I hadn’t directed anything in ten years. By the time the first rehearsal came along, I was incredibly nervous. Although the cast was there to act, I was doing the same—pretending to be a director! From day one, the cast exceeded my expectations and continued to do so right through the actual performance. They were patient, they listened and they remembered what we had rehearsed.

Although both Kevin and Karl grew up in Latin America, it had been several years since either spoke Spanish. According to Karl, language was a barrier, “Although I could understand them, I couldn’t find the words to speak in Spanish, so everything I said had to be translated.

Ernestine Cantu of Santa Ana Temple, who portrayed a doctor in Espiritu! is “grateful for the hard work of the young Englishmen to produce Espiritu! with a Latino flavor. It certainly would have been much easier for them to choose native-English speakers to do this rather than people who speak a different language and don’t have a theater background.” But then, according to Cantu, “Kevin can teach a rock to sing!”

An old story in a new setting
Karl’s idea of a contemporary setting for the musical was a key development. He explained, “The stories in Espiritu! are incredibly powerful, but I found myself taking them for granted, looking at them as just ancient tales. Setting them in the modern day might challenge the audience to question how they would react in similar circumstances. It was a fun process matching these ancient settings to their modern day equivalents, and I think they worked pretty well in the final production.”

Present day settings included a mall food court, where the Christians received the ability to speak in different languages, and a food warehouse, where they learned to share food and belongings.

Throughout the musical, the apostles were persecuted by a Drug Baron and his gang-member henchmen. The gang members beat and imprisoned the apostles. They also provided false testimony against Stephen in a courtroom scene, where Saul prosecuted Stephen. Perhaps the most moving scene was Stephen’s martyrdom, portrayed as a lethal injection, administered by a doctor.

Espiritu!’s climactic scene took place not on the road to Damascus, but at a nightclub, Club Damasco. There, while Saul and the Drug Baron are celebrating Stephen’s execution and planning many more, Saul is blinded by a vision of Jesus, realizes his horrible mistake and repents. After his repentance, he is helped by a singer at the club, who takes him to other Christians. They accept Paul who regains his sight and joins them in spreading the good news.

Throughout the performance, the acting was superb. There was never the appearance that the cast was reading lines from a script—they were truly interacting with one another and the audience. They brought Espiritu! to life.

Out of diversity, unity
Karl spoke of the bonding that took place among the cast members: “I could feel a building sense of community as we spent more and more time together, and people began to see the production taking shape. Although it was a lot of hard work, I genuinely looked forward to every single rehearsal, even knowing that I would not sleep that night as new ideas bounced around my head along with the irritatingly catchy songs!”

For Kevin, who took on the task of rewriting all the music in a Latin style, rehearsals involved putting together a pit orchestra and a small choir to reinforce the on-stage vocals. For these groups, Kevin invited musicians from non-Latino corps in the division.

Participating in Espiritu! was an eye-opening experience for members of the pit group. Said one, “I had no idea what to expect. I attend a large (Anglo) corps and was asked to help sing back-up vocals. I don’t even speak Spanish, but seeing the hard work, enthusiasm and the energy of the cast moved me to tears.

“The cast of Espiritu! made me proud to be a Salvationist. These fellow Salvationists have so much to offer. It was such an honor to contribute—even in a small way—to the production. I will never forget this experience and hope that we will have more opportunities to work together.”

During the show, the reaction of the audience showed that the cast’s prayers had been answered—God was using them to share the message. As the show concluded, the crowd leapt to its feet in appreciation, for God had not only shared his message, but he had used the dedication of the cast to do it with excellence.

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