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“Spirit! II: Empire” takes Army musicals into new era

 

Paul (Major Steve Bradley, center) and Barnabas (Joshua Tangermann, right) observe as Elymas (Karen Gleason, left) is struck blind by the power of the Holy Spirit. Aquila (Justus Bradshaw I, far left) also looks on. Photo by Tim Schaal

 

General John Larsson (Ret.) reviews the premiere of a new Army musical.

 By General John Larsson (RET.)

At 3 p.m. on June 8, when the house lights of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium went down and the scarlet stage curtain went up to reveal the stunning opening scene of the musical “Spirit! II Empire,” Salvation Army musicals entered a new era.

What hit the eye was the realism of the Roman sailors trying to save their storm-battered ship against a constantly moving backdrop made possible by the latest projection mapping technology. Throughout the musical this technology was to turn the stage in an instant from a storm at sea to a pastoral scene, a bustling city, a palace hall, or a prison cell.

What hit the ear was the glorious sound of a full orchestra depicting the scene in music, soon to be joined by the full-bodied voices of the cast. The sheer quality of the live vocal sound and the beautifully crafted pre-recorded orchestrations raised the bar for Army musicals.

The original musical “Spirit!,” written by John Gowans and myself, ends with the conversion of Paul. In “Spirit! II Empire,” Karl Larsson makes that his starting point as, with his gift for drama and ear for dialogue, he brings the rest of the Book of Acts to life on stage. We watch Paul traveling through the Roman Empire, performing miracles, battling demons, planting churches, writing his epistles, facing increasing persecution from a nervous Rome, and finally being martyred.

Kevin Larsson, with his gift as a composer, takes hold of Malcolm Westwood’s vivid and sensitive lyrics, and with melodic inventiveness, harmonic boldness and rhythmic audacity turns them into superb songs that move the dramatic story along and convey the message of the musical.

The creative staging and choreography devised by co-directors Barbara Allen and Karl Larsson for the premiere of the musical at the congress made full use of the excellent staging resources of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, with the action not only taking place on stage but also on the two front side wings and on a specially designed front-of-stage extension.

The large, highly professional and beautifully costumed cast was drawn entirely from the Southern California Division. There were many outstanding individual performances, but towering above all others was that of Major Steve Bradley as Paul. “Spirit! II: Empire” is a musical about the Holy Spirit working through the Apostle Paul, and there is hardly a scene in which he is not the dominant speaker and singer. From now on, my mental picture of Paul the Apostle will be of Steve Bradley in that role!

In the thunderous standing ovation that followed the musical reaching its climax with its sung hallelujahs and a final amen, the audience thanked not only those on stage but also Producer Jacqui Larsson, Stage Manager Pili Martinez Moore, and the other members of the production team.

Freda and I, the parents of Karl and Kevin, were part of that standing ovation—and we joined in the clapping with no little pride. For us it has been fascinating to watch the development of the musical from its birth as a concept to its first public performance, and we are delighted to see our two sons combining their respective gifts in this way.

We are also delighted that the musical will be made available for use by Army centers and other churches, not only in the Western Territory but also around the world. The script, music, backing CDs and DVDs of the backdrop images will shortly be on sale, and with the musical being adaptable to virtually any circumstances, we wish it a long and useful life in the service of the Lord.

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