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The Gospel According to Heather

On the surface, this show appears to be a coming-of-age tale with music, but it is much more: it is a cleverly done and, at times, pointed commentary on the socio-political nature of contemporary America and of religion.

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Lauren Elder, Brittany Nicole Williams and Badia Farha in a scene from Paul Gordon’s new musical, “The Gospel According to Heather” at Theater 555 (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Scotty Bennett

Scotty Bennett, Critic

The Gospel According to Heather, with book, music, and lyrics by Paul Gordon, is a story about a teenager’s struggles with fitting in with her contemporaries, finding a boyfriend, and dealing with the supernatural powers which she seems to have acquired after finding a Roman coin in a fish. On the surface, this show appears to be a coming-of-age tale with music, but it is much more: it is a cleverly done and, at times, pointed commentary on the socio-political nature of contemporary America, and of religion.

Heather Krebs, the story’s focus, is a 17-year-old high school senior, beautifully inhabited by Brittany Nicole Williams, who guides us through the events happening to her as she navigates her life in Sharonville, Ohio. The opening production number, “My Name Is Heather Krebs,” defines the town as Heather sees it and introduces some of the characters who will become important to the story in scenes interspersed throughout the song. In one of those scenes, Heather is in a class and doesn’t hear the question and answers: “Um…He tripled the national debt, radically dropped the income tax rate on corporations, sold missiles to Iran, ignored AIDS, started the homeless crisis and 138 members of his administration were either indicted, convicted or both,” thinking the question was about Ronald Reagan when it was about 17th century pagans. This response is an indication of the political views that will be expressed in the show.

Brittany Nicole Williams, Maya Lagerstam and Carson Stewart in a scene from Paul Gordon’s new musical, “The Gospel According to Heather” at Theater 555 (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Heather recounts some of the strange things she has been thinking about, like floating in the air or walking on water, to Agatha (Katey Sagal), an apparently catatonic senior at a nursing home. The real adventure begins for her when she finds a Roman coin in a piece of halibut she is eating for dinner. The coin is a constant symbol throughout the show. Every time she tries to get rid of it, it keeps coming back. Later she tells Agatha that a deep cut on her finger completely healed hours after and that a bottle of water turned to wine. It is surprising that, as smart as she is, she doesn’t seem to understand what is happening. As her healing powers become more public, she is getting more attention from people than she ever wanted.

Two characters introduced in the opening number will play important roles. One is a popular classmate, Kaisley (Maya Lagerstam), who wants to become friends with Heather for ulterior reasons, and the other is her teacher, Mrs. Parker (Badia Farha). Lagerstam and Farha have strong singing voices and fully inhabit their characters; some of their dialogue and actions are questionable. Early on, Kaisley, in a scene with Heather, says the line, ” You’re not supposed to find yourself. You’re supposed to have sex and do drugs.” It is the introduction to the song “Wait!” about teenage rebellion, but with some decidedly bad advice, such as, “…Cause we don’t care whose/ Pointless rules we’re disobeying” or “Do things that later we’ll regret/But never think of.” Farha, as Mrs. Parker recommends to Grace Krebs (Lauren Elder), that her daughter Heather skip finishing high school and go straight to college. A student’s senior year seems to be a little late in the game to recommend going directly to college.

Katey Sagal and Brittany Nicole Williams in a scene from Paul Gordon’s new musical, “The Gospel According to Heather” at Theater 555 (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

The ensemble plays a variety of characters in situations that raise questions about who this girl is and whether she is for real. Two of those characters figure prominently in the story. Zach (Carson Stewart) is a supposed tough guy graffiti artist who becomes Heather’s romantic interest, and Booker Ralston (Jeremy Kushnier) is a right-wing podcaster who promotes political conspiracies and disinformation. Stewart’s vocals are strong, but his acting is uneven and tentative as if he is not entirely comfortable with the character. Kushnier’s character provides a counterpoint to the primarily progressive views being expressed by other characters. His characterization of a sincere, slightly buffoonish speaker is a commentary on the absurdity of contemporary right-wing pundits. Kushnier also plays Ray, a busker who engages in thoughtful and supportive dialogues with Heather at crucial moments in her journey of discovery. Ray turns out to be an important character for Heather, almost a guardian angel, as the complexity of her life increases.

After some miraculous things happen due to Heather’s intervention, everything comes to a head. When her purpose is revealed, she misunderstands the message, and her life gets more complicated. At this point, Sagal sheds her Agatha persona and becomes something very different. This is Sagal’s first time performing on stage in New York City, and it is a shame that it has taken so long to happen. Sagal’s performance is electric. Her vocals are solid, and she brings an energy to the show missing in the earlier scenes.

Brittany Nicole Williams and Jeremy Kushnier in a scene from Paul Gordon’s new musical, “The Gospel According to Heather” at Theater 555 (Photo credit: Russ Rowland)

Rachel Klein’s direction keeps the show brisk, but her choreography is basic and misses providing some of the ensemble an opportunity to exhibit their skills. The set design by Christopher and Justin Swader is simple but works to give a sense of place without distracting from the action. Sean Hagerty’s effective sound design and the excellent and evocative lighting design by Jamie Roderick are in support of the production. Saawan Tiwari’s costume design works well in defining the characters and the time and place and with some swift, necessary costume changes, such as a scene at the end of the play.

The Gospel According to Heather (extended through July 16, 2023)

Amas Musical Theatre in association with Jim Kierstead, Broadway Factor, Linda Karn, and David Bryant

Theater 555, 555 West 42ND Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit https://theater555.venuetix.com/show/details/q9bsHwtqWV2TA0fFUtHb/1686783600000

Running time: 100 minutes including one intermission

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Scotty Bennett
About Scotty Bennett (70 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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