Goddess at the Berkeley Rep

#1Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/14/22 at 3:22am

There was some buzz at the Berkeley Rep on Saturday night. While I was there to see Sanctuary City in Peet's Theatre, there was an invited dress rehearsal at the next-door Roda Theatre for Goddess, the much-anticipated musical with a book by Jocelyn Bioh - best known for School Girls - and directed by Fat Ham director Saheem Ali, who conceived the idea based on an African myth he learned about growing up in Kenya. Its first preview is Sunday evening. The show's official premiere is Aug. 24.

Amber Iman, who I've seen in Shuffle Along on Broadway and in the 2017 Hamilton tour (as Peggy and Maria), plays one of the leads. The score is by Michael Thurber.

David John Chavez talked to the creatives for a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. 

"Playwright Jocelyn Bioh expressed that challenge succinctly: 'It’s original music and an original story, loosely based on a myth that is literally only four sentences long.'”


The promotional clips promise a dance-heavy show including a variety of musical styles featuring African and Black musical traditions, along with more traditional musical theater stuff.

I'll be seeing it next weekend and am very curious.

Updated On: 8/14/22 at 03:22 AM

Square Peg2
#2Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/14/22 at 2:07pm

Very keen to hear thoughts on this show! I think Amber Iman is a star, and she sang a beautiful number from Goddess at her recent Minetta Lane concert.

JBroadway Profile Photo
#3Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/14/22 at 5:34pm

I'm likewise very curious to see how this is! It's a strong team, and seems like it could be very good.

I'll be curious to hear if the show comes across as having commercial aspirations, or whether it's likely to stick to the non-profits. Either way, I hope it comes to NYC. Bioh has an established relationship with MCC, and I think they've done 1 musical per season since they opened in their new space. Seems like this might be a good fit.

And I agree Amber Iman is great - my first exposure to her was her excellent performance as Nina Simone in the mega-flop, Soul Doctor.

jkcohen626 Profile Photo
#4Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/15/22 at 12:22am

I am so excited about this show! Seeing it on Sunday and can't wait to report back!

BJR Profile Photo
#5Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/15/22 at 7:31am

Caught a reading years back and this one definitely has commercial aspirations and potential. It needed book work at that time, as you'd imagine, but the score even then was very high energy and got the audience pretty exhilarated. It's also very much a star vehicle for Iman.

#6Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/21/22 at 7:05pm

The world premiere of Goddess, a musical comedy which I saw in its sixth preview on Saturday night, has so many brilliant elements that it feels almost churlish to point out flaws. I'll get to both, as I stumble through my inability to know the names of most of the songs because they aren't listed anywhere I can find.

The opening song is an introduction to the Moto Moto club, in Mombasa, Kenya, which is where much of the action takes place. It's a fantastic, high-energy dance number featuring the charismatic Roderick Covington (Once on This Island) as Ahmed, its host. Backed by a band that's stage right, the number characterizes the club as a sort of sanctuary for people whose daytime lives might be very different but who are united by their love of music. The energy and skill of the dancers are on impressive display, with Covington ending with a confident, "And that's just the opening act!" It got enthusiastic and lengthy applause that stopped the show. The second part of the show's one-two punch is its introduction of the club's new star singer, Nadira - played by Amber Iman - who walks down a staircase singing the sultry, R&B song, "Honey Sweet."  It's about as compelling an opening combination as I've ever seen in a new musical. 

Nadira has a secret. She's is actually the goddess Marimba, The Goddess of Music, who has descended from the heavens in search of love. She hasn't found it yet, though she is pursued by the club owner, Madongo (played by Lawrence Stallings, who was in the original cast of The Book of Mormon and Passing Strange). Nadira isn't interested, and Madongo is an alcoholic creep anyway. Nadira's mother also has placed a curse on her, which she doesn't realize.

Director Saheem Ali, associate artistic director of The Public Theater and director of Pulitzer Prize winner Fat Ham, conceived the story, which is based on an actual, but short, myth he learned about in his native Kenya. Playwright Jocelyn Bioh - best known for School Girls, or, The African Mean Girls Play - wrote the book. Michael Thurber wrote the score.

Iman is a star as Nadira. I had seen her before, in a fascinating turn as Pegga/Maria Reynolds in the first national tour of Hamilton that put her own spin on that dual role, but not like this stunning performance. She has a ballad midway through the first act, perhaps called "Learn to Love," about her quest for a romantic partner even though it meant defying her mother's wishes, that is just gorgeous. The costumes for her, and the entire cast, are by Dede Ayite, a two-time Tony Award nominee who does fantastic work. Iman is able to convey Nadira's longing, confusion, and kindness, as well as a flash of anger.

The less compelling half of the story is that of Nadira's love interest, Omari, a young man just returned from New York City (studying political science at Columbia University) who is the family's political heir. Omari is played by Phillip Johnson Richardson. His parents and grandparents have held high political office for generations and view that as their right and obligation. His parents are Hassan (played by Kingsley Leggs) and Siti (played by Kecia Lewis, a Broadway veteran dating back to Dreamgirls who has quite a powerhouse voice); his fiancee is Cheche (played by Destinee Rea). Omari is more interested in playing music than in running for office, but he goes along reluctantly with his parents' and fiancee's plans for him.

The actors do their best with the political legacy story. Rea, as Cheche, puts her all into an early comic number; the parents spar amusingly in a musical debate over who really runs things. The problem is the character of Omari. His desire to play music doesn't feel truly passionate. He goes through the motions as a politician, barely, but that story lacks the stakes it needs. Even a big second act solo by Lewis' Siti, emphasizing Omari's obligations, doesn't make up for the fact that Omari is a boring character with little interesting to say or sing.

Goddess, like Hadestown, is based on a myth. There's even a trio of singers who do some exposition work, though they are not manipulative and malevolent like Hadestown's Fates. Perhaps it's too much to expect a mythical story to work as full-fledged drama. But I was hoping Bioh, a talented and incisive comic writer, could pull together a story that didn't feel so feather-light for its male lead and his family. And there are dramatic moments that fizzle or, at the climax, are unnecessarily confusing. (Then again, it's possible I was just slow.)

As a result, the show lacks balance. The scenes at Moto Moto, including a funny romance between Ahmed and club bartender/manager Rashida (the actress Abena milks every comic ounce out of her character's one liners), sing. The weakness of Omari's rather generic character undermines his romance with Nadira. And after one listen, Thurber's score - after three fantastic songs in the first half-hour - doesn't stay strong enough. Sometimes that doesn't matter. Ahmed and Rashida's comic bit, "It's a Date," isn't a great song but works anyway on the charm of Covington and Abena. But sometimes I caught myself thinking that, despite the almost-uniform strength of the performances, the song wasn't all that good.

In the end, the show ends on a high, including a little coup de theatre that I won't spoil. Ali and the other creatives have said they are aiming for a show that celebrates "Black joy," and I think they succeed. It's the other parts of the show that feel like they need work.

The musical's official premiere is on Wednesday and it is currently scheduled to run through Sept. 25. Berkeley Rep out-of-town tryouts often extend a bit, but that's the schedule now. Goddess is definitely worth catching, though New Yorkers can probably feel safe in the knowledge that it will get there soon enough.

Updated On: 8/22/22 at 07:05 PM

jkcohen626 Profile Photo
#7Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/22/22 at 4:22pm

I saw this show last night and thoroughly enjoyed it!

Amber Iman is such a star and really shined in this role! Her songs were all solid and her voice is outstanding. I think my mom nailed what made her performance so great and it’s that she nails the kind of oxymoronic combination of majesty and casualness that is essential to the character.

Other highlights were definitely Rodrick Covington as Moto Moto MC Ahmed, Abena as Bartender Rashida, and Kecia Lewis and Kingsley Leggs as Omari’s parents. The whole ensemble was also outstanding! You could just tell they were having so much fun and this show’s strongest moments were definitely the high-energy songs and dance sequences in the club.

Jocelyn Bioh’s book was simple, but effective. I don’t think myth requires an incredibly complex story to deliver its messages, so it worked for me.

The Moto Moto set was perfect and the costumes were amazing! Dede Atiye NAILED them!

I would agree that Omari seems to be the show’s weak point. I do think some of it is in the performance. I didn’t find Phillip Johnson Richardson to be very compelling. But it was just an overall problem that I didn’t buy his love for music. His love for Nadira was there, but I needed more (maybe another song for him?) that really establishes how this is truly his passion.

So, in conclusion, probably some work to be done but a fun night at the theatre and solid show!

#8Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/23/22 at 6:31am


We're mostly on the same page here, and my wife and I did discuss whether the Omari "problem" could be attributed to the actor. But I think that's a bit unfair to Phillip Johnson Richardson. Omari is a thankless part. He's the lead male character and love interest, but everyone else on stage is more interesting. Even his solo is instantly forgettable. 

Part of the problem is making Omari's family a political dynasty. Omari, introduced as a political science major, doesn't seem to have a political thought in his head. He's running for mayor, but aside from defending the Moto Moto club as a good place to hold a campaign event, doesn't express any thought at all about why he should be mayor. Fine, it's duty and tradition - but who wants a young mayor whose only qualification for the job is his name and who doesn't really want the job anyway? Bookwriter Jocelyn Bioh, whose School Girls play was sharp and incisive, uses jokes and references that are decades old. I saw one Bill Clinton joke coming before Omari's father Hassan - played by Kingsley Leggs - even said it. (I'm not that clever.) There's a minor political scandal that feels faintly ridiculous.

Goddess is a musical comedy, so maybe it doesn't matter. But I don't think, "It's based on a myth," is a good excuse for too many tedious book scenes about a political campaign that only three supporting characters care about. Omari is a nice but bland young man whose supposed passion - music - is inadequately expressed. That would provide a better explanation for his attraction to Nadira, aside from the fact that she's a goddess, and would explain her interest in him. But oddly, we don't get much of that.

All of this frustrated me because so many other elements of the show work wonderfully. The opening number, Amber Iman's star turn as Nadira, everything in the Moto Moto club, even the band's lengthy jazz song before the show started, is great. It's easy to recommend the musical based on all that alone. 

But if the producers and creatives have Broadway ambitions, I think they need to work on the show's weaknesses. But that's why they have out-of-town tryouts.

#9Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/23/22 at 7:39pm

Mezzanine seats for August 25, 26, and 28 are up on Goldstar right now

Updated On: 8/23/22 at 07:39 PM

#10Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/23/22 at 9:29pm

Had the pleasure of seeing this exuberant attempt at a new Broadway bound musical. As others have noted, Amber Iman is a revelation. She is far better than the material she is given, but is able to carry most of the weight on her shoulders. The problems are instantly noticeable. An opening number that introduces us to a bar and the meaning of the bar, and absolutely no attempt at exposition or setting up the rules. This was the exact same problem that Paradise Square had when it opened at Berkeley Rep. What is clear is how much the director, book writer and songwriter love the idea of writing a musical. However, its just as clear they know nothing about writing a musical. There are two subplots (one about local politics and one about a bar manager who disappears) that barely have anything to do with the main subplot (will they or won't they). We don't learn about the most important element of the story (the curse) until far too late. Open with the curse. Let the audience yearn for her to break the curse. Get rid of the Moto Moto guy who falls in love with the bar keep. This is just second rate soubrette stuff that went out with Sugar Babies. What the writers don't realize is that their attempt at writing a joyful Black musical is pretty much just a retread of every musical theater trope ever. They should study the libretto to Me and My Girl and they will have the secrets to everything they are trying to do here. But the biggest problem on their hands is one of the worst lyricists ever. He is really a song writer, not a composer, since most of the score sounds like cut songs from Book of Mormon. Yes, there are two great ballads for Amber, but the lyrics are so inane the songs are instantly forgettable. I'm really going to date myself here, but there was a really bad musical at the Helen Hayes years and years ago called something like, "High Rollers Social Club..." and boy did this remind me of that. So much energy. So little reward. They need to bring in a director and writers who actually understand musicals, the structure, what the audience needs, and pacing. This feels like a failed graduate school project. I felt very lucky to have been in town long enough to catch it this past weekend. I wish I had more excitement for it, but its always exciting seeing something try out. 

#11Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/25/22 at 4:49pm

First review I've seen, by Lily Janiak in the San Francisco Chronicle, is positive and in line with my thoughts, though a bit more favorable. She raves about Amber Iman, praises Roderick Covington as the Moto Moto host and Abena's comic timing as the bartender, as well as most of the company. But she thinks the romantic dilemma doesn't work because it's obvious Omari and Cheche - his fiancee - aren't in love, so it's hard to care about their relationship. She points out a few lyrical clunkers too.




DottieD'Luscia Profile Photo
#12Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/25/22 at 6:25pm

Goddess is on the schedule for Shakespeare Theatre in DC in 2023. 

Hey Dottie! Did your colleagues enjoy the cake even though your cat decided to sit on it? ~GuyfromGermany

#13Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/26/22 at 3:21pm

Chad Jones' Theater Dogs review is mixed-to-positive, and summarizes the show's strengths and weaknesses concisely:

"From the joyous opening number introducing us to the setting – the nightclub Moto Moto in Mombasa, Kenya – it’s clear that this cast and creative team are going to take us somewhere worthwhile. That good will goes a long way toward keeping the show moving, even when the story gets a little clunky, when some of the songs don’t quite rise to the level of the performances and especially when the ending is clouded in rushed confusion."


He pointedly raises a problem I had near the end, that the climax is baffling. It's as if, stumped about how to wrap things up, director Saheem Ali and bookwriter Jocelyn Bioh just sort of give up, then return to the opening song, "Mombasa," and a flashy flourish. .

Several reviews have echoed my original comments on the show that the songs by Michael Thurber, after a fine start, aren't really all that great. Amber Iman, as Nadira/Marimba, can make the songs seem better than they are, and most of the performances are good enough that you overlook it in the moment. 

But Broadway audiences won't be dazzled by Broadway-caliber performances (except Iman, who's extraordinary). There are a lot of weaknesses in the book, and I could feel the audience - which greeted the opening number with an extended ovation - getting restless and a little bored whenever the action moved away from Iman and most of the action at the Moto Moto club (with the exception of a subplot involving the bar's owner that leads to a dead end).

It's a promising show, and I had a good time despite its shortcomings.. But I'm certainly glad to see that it will be getting another out-of-town tryout in D.C. next spring before heading to Broadway. 

Synecdoche2 Profile Photo
#14Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/26/22 at 8:13pm

Since Saheem Ali is directing this, I have to imagine it will go to the Public in fall 2023 for a hopeful spring transfer to Broadway.

#15Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/26/22 at 8:27pm

Karen D'Souza, a veteran Bay Area critic, is pretty negative in her review in the Marin Independent-Journal. 

"Iman sings like an angel and she’s certainly got a heavenly presence, but she has little in the way of acting chops. That flaw is magnified by thinly-sketched characters, a formulaic plot and far too many generic ballads." She writes the show trades on "tired tropes," has an underdeveloped plot and fails to explore the Kenyan myth on which it's based. D'Souza also writes that climactic interludes, especially the ending, are "underdeveloped" and fails to explain the goddess' motivations.


Anastasia_Beaverhausen Profile Photo
#16Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/27/22 at 10:38am

Is there a discount code available?

TheatreMonkey Profile Photo
#17Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/29/22 at 12:05am

bear88 said: "...But Broadway audiences won't be dazzled by Broadway-caliber performances (except Iman, who's extraordinary). There are a lot of weaknesses in the book..."

I totally appreciate the thorough and detailed write-ups you've posted on this new show -- thank you, truly. But this line has me scratching my head; are you saying that for "Broadway audiences" to be "dazzled", the high standard that currently defines the amazingly talented Broadway community isn't enough (which, in and of itself, is the gold standard)? That they need to somehow be even more ... otherworldly amazing to impress the audience? 

Maybe I'm misinterpreting the remark, or reading too much into it...

ETA: Of course, a solid show has to have all elements on fire to work as a whole -- solid performances can't completely wipe away and distract from horrible material. But a recent example of how performances can truly elevate, would be Paradise Square, where not one ill word was spoken about the cast, and many were indeed "dazzled" by them. 

Updated On: 8/29/22 at 12:05 AM

#18Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 8/29/22 at 2:53am

Hi TheatreMonkey,

Thanks for the question and chance to clarify. Broadway audiences expect Broadway-caliber performances. One of the things about out-of-town tryouts is that the performances are almost always top-notch. Most of the cast and creatives of Goddess have very impressive resumes, awards, Broadway experience and Tony nominations. Some actors might stand out, as I thought Amber Iman did, but most are going to be excellent. The costume design is a dazzling mix of colors and outfits. The choreography, especially in the opening song, is often spectacular. The audience seemed to leave happy.

This was less in my quasi-review but a followup, in which I was considering how the musical might be received on Broadway in its current form. I think the show has significant book problems - some more easily addressed than others - and a score that isn't as strong as it probably needs to be. I hesitated in criticizing the climax, because I thought I might have missed something, but several professional reviewers had the same reaction. The first act closing cliffhanger promises more drama involving the goddess Marimba, on earth as Nadira, than it delivers. 

The discrepancy is illustrated by a song by Broadway veteran Kecia Lewis, who plays the young political heir's mother, Siti, and who is adamant that he follow in his family's career. Lewis has a terrific voice and does a fine job with the material she's been given, but the political story isn't interesting. Her second act solo is wonderfully performed, but the song is mediocre and the lyrics are worse. In theory, Siti's perspective could be a welcome one - emphasizing her son's obligations to the community and not just himself. But her character isn't written that way: Siti just seems to want her son to have a job to which he is spectacularly unsuited just because that's the family business. It doesn't work, and that's a book problem. There's not much Lewis can do about that. 

But the musical is not in its ready-for-Broadway form. The creatives will have a chance to make revisions during its Berkeley Rep run, and then before its scheduled run in D.C. next spring. As others have speculated, it could arrive next fall at the Public Theater or somewhere else. There's plenty to time for the show to be revamped, perhaps considerably. While my reaction to the show wasn't as harsh as Karen D'Souza's, I can't say she is wrong in many of her critiques of the story. The score relies heavily on Iman's performance. But she could use a few more good songs too, as well as a book that better explains and dramatizes what she's doing on earth.

Updated On: 8/29/22 at 02:53 AM

#19Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 9/10/22 at 1:48pm

Goddess has extended by a week, through Oct. 1.

TheatreMonkey Profile Photo
#20Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 9/10/22 at 3:41pm

Thanks for your comprehensive answer, bear88! Wish I was able to see this intriguing work-in-progress; thanks again for your detailed reports. 

DottieD'Luscia Profile Photo
#21Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 5/9/23 at 9:25am

I'm not sure when Shakespeare Theatre in DC cancelled the run of Goddess, but I was wondering why I hadn't heard anything about it as I knew it was supposed to be here about now.

Hey Dottie! Did your colleagues enjoy the cake even though your cat decided to sit on it? ~GuyfromGermany

#22Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 5/9/23 at 11:01am

Stills from the show look amazing.

Goddess at the Berkeley Rep


#23Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 5/9/23 at 12:48pm

This Looks Incredible! I cannot wait for this show to finally hit a New York Stage. I think it would serve the production best to start Off-Broadway and then transfer to Bway/

There is nothing in the world better than Live Theater.

jkcohen626 Profile Photo
#24Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 5/9/23 at 3:27pm

I'm sure it's been said before. But, with Saheem Ali at the helm, this seems destined for The Public. 

jkcohen626 Profile Photo
#25Goddess at the Berkeley Rep
Posted: 5/11/23 at 9:54am

Seems like they're doing a workshop right now. They've been posting some clips on their Instagram. Glad to see it's still being worked on, but curious that they are all available for a workshop, but not for a production. I wonder if it's that Saheem Ali couldn't commute to DC with Fat Ham going on or if they wanted to do the workshop before going forward with a new production and the scheduling issues had to do with that.