Theatre review: Long Beach Opera’s The Central Park Five

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Sometimes a theater production electrifies– not suddenly like a lightning bolt, but in a crackling, smoldering way where you feel its spirit linger like a live wire, ready to jump.

Long Beach Opera’s (LBO) world premiere of The Central Park Five is one of those productions. Its true story of five African-American and Latino youth falsely accused of rape– with brilliant performances swathed in richly nuanced, jazz-inflected music by composer Anthony Davis– masterfully transports its audience to the emotionally turbulent events of 1989 New York that are still resonant today.

One of the more satirical ways the production connects now and then is through Donald Trump, currently our president but then a New York real-estate mogul very vocal about the fate of the Five. Concerned about negative effects of the perceived “terror” on property prices, we see Trump (Thomas Segen) sitting on a golden commode while on the phone (a nod to his current early-morning Tweets), pressuring the district attorney (Jessica Mamey) to incarcerate all five youth.

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff
From left: Nathan Granner (Korey Wise), Cedric Berry (Yusef Salaam), Derrell Acon (Antron McCray), Orson Van Gay (Raymond Santana) and Bernard Holcomb (Kevin Richardson) in Long Beach Opera’s The Central Park Five

But the rest is pure emotional immersion into the mindsets of five very young men from Harlem, ranging from 14 to 16 years old, as they navigate their world– one they feel only extends as far as what they can hold in their hands. Embodying everything they are up against is a figure called the Masque– played with utmost unctuousness by Zeffin Quinn Hollis– who voices the racist, paranoid perspective of whites.

That bald view of what people may think but not say is a credit to librettist Richard Wesley, who also includes voices of the youth’s outraged parents and the victim herself– Trisha Meili, the 28-year-old jogger who was brutally assaulted, raped and left in Central Park in a coma with no memory of what happened.

The performers are uniformly excellent, each offering distinct vocal talents. Mezzo-soprano Mamey is exceptionally strong as the district attorney, working in conjunction with Hollis’s character to implicate the Five based only on their coerced confessions. Joelle Lamarre and Lindsay Patterson soar as two of the boys’ palpably indignant mothers.
And all five leads– Darrell Acon as Antron McCray, Cedric Berry as Yusef Salaam, Orson Van Gay as Raymond Santana, Nathan Granner as Korey Wise and Bernard Holcomb as Kevin Richardson– embody their characters through pitch-perfect singing and fluid acting.

The set itself (designed by LBO director Andreas Mitisek) facilitates that dynamism, using mobile doors– through which characters continually move in and out– and projection screens to create the boys’ Harlem homes, jail cells and courtroom. Images of tree branches, a hospital room, newspaper headlines and even the opulent decor of Trump Tower visually create place and mood.

Projected newspaper headlines in Long Beach Opera’s The Central Park Five

Most impactfully, though, we see the justice system literally separating the Five from their parents during the court trial, with a judge (Hollis) presiding from a dispassionate height as the boys to one side crumble on hearing their sentences while their parents on the other side cry out disbelievingly, to no avail.

And through it all, Davis’s ingeniously intricate, powerfully flowing score (conducted by Leslie Dunner) sustains the story’s emotional intensity and complexity. Though the libretto and music seem at odds during the first few minutes– when the Five emerge from doorways to collectively introduce their feelings and thoughts– they are satisfyingly unified thereafter.

Ana DuVernay’s recent Netflix series When They See Us also marks the 30th anniversary of this seminal event, but The Central Park Five offers a uniquely immersive experience through the cast’s impassioned vocals and Davis’s soulful score– one that makes visceral feelings of limitation, loss and injustice.

The Central Park Five continues through June 23 at the Warner Grand Theater, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro, with performances Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $49 to $150. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 470-7464 or visit longbeachopera.org.

From left: Cedric Berry (Yusef Salaam), Orson Van Gay (Raymond Santana), Derrell Acon (Antron McCray), Bernard Holcomb (Kevin Richardson) and Nathan Granner (Korey Wise) in Long Beach Opera’s The Central Park Five