See This Show: Wade into the soothing waters of 'Gospel Down by the Riverside' at Zach Theatre
More musical healing is in order.
You will not find a more intense hour of invigorating and soothing curative than "Gospel Down by the Riverside," delivered by four top-shelf singers as part of Zach Theatre's Songs Under the Stars series through April 11.
In October, Zach introduced the salutary outdoor series staged at its People's Plaza with a socially distanced concert of Broadway show tunes sung by local stars Matthew Reden and Jill Blackwood. Then as now, as much careful planning went into audience placement and movement as into the concerts perched on the steps of the Topfer Theatre. Rock, pop and Motown themes enlivened the weeks that followed.
Encouraged by this success, Zach came back with "A Rockin' Holiday Concert" in December, but it cut the series short when Austin moved into Stage 5 pandemic guidelines. With Austin now back in Stage 3, Zach has revived Songs Under the Stars, first with two weeks of country music followed by the current gospel show starring troupers Roderick Sanford, Janis Stinson, Kia Dawn Fulton and Judy Arnold.
Still to come on the plaza this spring: "Tameca Jones In Concert; Opening by Omar Phoenix," "Disney Through the Decades" and "Mariachi Melodias De Mexico."
Since December, Zach has enhanced the effectiveness of these concerts with a new outdoor stage that includes more sophisticated sound and lighting as well as improved sight lines. One hopes that this stage returns every spring and fall as the theater company takes full advantage of the plaza's self-evident charms.
In fact, the one thing that has been missing from these concerts so far has been a full-throated response from the necessarily scattered audience members. Oh yes, they clapped, swayed, hooted and hollered for the gospel quartet, which was backed by a soulful band. Their kinetic excitement, however, drifted up into the stars.
Back in Austin after too long away, Stinson still brandishes the deep tones and grounded gravitas that have made her a star for four decades. Arnold, whose compressed soprano can bop from Tina Turner to Aretha Franklin, has lost none of her top notes or her ferocity. Fulton was given some of the most thrilling numbers, and she put her own twist on the standard "His Eye Is On the Sparrow," a hymn that I believe I've heard from all four singers at Zach over the years. Sanford served as the vocal and physical anchor of the show and at times as the group's stand-in preacher.
History cloaked this hour of sanctified song. From the stage, the performers reminded us of their teamwork in previous Zach shows such as "Crowns," "Ragtime," "Beehive" and "Once on This Island." Yet they could have mentioned dozens of more showcases for outstanding Black talent at theater over the years, including two monumental versions of "The Gospel at Colonus."
Another kind of history lingered over this show, which was staged just above the banks of the Colorado River, a stream that, in the past, had served area believers for baptisms, picnics and revivals. During the concert, one could hear the painful and joyful musical lines strung back in an unbroken cord to spirituals and gospel, blues and jazz, soul and rock and beyond.
Down by the riverside, you could hear it all. And be restored.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Songs Under the Stars 2021 Spring Concert Series
All performances through May 9 take place in Zach Theatre's People's Plaza. Attendees must buy tickets in advance for seating in physically defined pods or cabanas. Some options require that you bring your own seats. Tickets start at $75 for a two-person pod. Info: zachtheatre.org.