Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Previous Nate Jacobs reviews have centered around soul music, Sam Cooke, Motown, etc.all music I enjoy, but Broadway in Black is all about the music that is my life, Broadway. I feel very protective around Porgy and Bess, Purlie is one of my favorite scores for a less than perfect musical, I believe Ragtime to be the finest American musical since the English takeover of Broadway circa 1980sall of these pieces are strongly featured, along with the Duke Ellington songbook (another passion) and plenty more that I love. My only criticism might be that some important things that are left out completely or under represented. St. Louis Woman (two standards come from this flop musical: "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home"), Lost in the Stars and Jamaica are mentioned by not heard from, and House of Flowers and No Strings are not even mentioned. The revue clocks in at almost two and a half hours, longer than the two hours usually allowed Nate, so perhaps I want much more of what I love than is possible. I also wish the historical elements were a little more accurate.
The dancing, always one of the liveliest elements in any WBTT production, rise to new heights as choreographer Donald Frison moves away from his pop/soul moves into a more Broadway style. Featured dancers Derric Gobourne, Jr. and Joshua Thompson demonstrate abilities to dance in styles that perhaps are somewhat new to them. Both are fabulous dancers and their versatility wowed me. Mr. Thompson is now Mr. Gobourne's equal, which was not always the case in the past. Dancing has always been a key element of Michael Mendez's performances, but this production shows off both Michael and Brian Boyd spectacularly. Topaz Von Wood's credit lists an appearance with Alvin Ailey, which at least gives the audience a little advanced warning that they will be dazzled by this dancer. Cherise James is also featured in dances, and carries a major vocal load as well. Vocal duties are shared by Syreeta S. Banks, Ariel Blue and Joanna Ford for the women and Brian L. Boyd, Keenan Carver, Michael Mendez and Raleigh Mosely II for the men, with Donald Frison adding more luster to the ensemble dancing. It is a typically strong singing ensemble for WBTT, with various voice types to cover all the different demands.
The first act attempts to give some of the history of black artists on Broadway. After "On Broadway" as an introduction, we get "Black and Blue" (Fats Waller), "Broadway Blues" (Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle), and "I've Got to Be a Rug Cutter" (Ellington), then a look at the very first musical on Broadway to feature an entirely black cast, Blake and Sissle's Shuffle Along. The title tune and the show's most well known song, "I'm Just Wild About Harry," are featured. Show Boat, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, featured important black characters and "Ol Man River" is effectively offered by Raleigh Mosely II. Next, a look at George Gershwin and DuBois Heyward's Porgy and Bess features "It Ain't Necessarily So" sung by the men, "Summertime" (in a jazz version) by Syreeta Banks, and a gorgeously sung "Bess, You is My Woman Now" (second half only) by Brian Boyd and JoAnna Ford in the original key. The latter is one of the most beautiful duets in all of opera, and the most beautiful not by Verdi. Ther's a visit to Cabin in the Sky with "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe" (movie only) by Syreeta and "Taking a Chance on Love" by Ariel Blue. From Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein's American version of Bizet's Carmen, Cherisse sings "Dat's Love."
From Ragtime JoAnna sings a haunting "Your Daddy's Son" and is joined by Raleigh for "Wheels of a Dream." Next, a salute to Duke Ellington on Broadway, with Sophisticated Ladies with five of his most popular songs sung by various groupings of the cast. After Duke is Fats, as in Fats Waller, and a visit to Ain't Misbehavin', the Tony Award Best Musical of 1978, for four tunes, only one by Fats ("How Ya Baby"). A look at two more revues saluting black composers, Five Guys Named Moe (Louis Jordan) and Eubie ("Weary" sung by JoAnna is thrilling beyond words), ends the act on a high note.
The second act changes direction, just a little bit, with tributes to important musicals, all of which WBTT has produced, most of them fairly recently. We start out with "Bubbling Brown Sugar" (the company), "There'll Be Some Changes Made" (Ariel), and "Sweet Georgia Brown" (Cherise with Michael and Raleigh) from Bubbling Brown Sugar. My whole body reacted as I heard the opening of "Walk Him Up the Stairs" from Purlie followed by the title tune from that show (Cherise) and the men in "First Thing Monday Mornin'." More Ahrens and Flaherty with a look at Once on This Island, including "Waiting for Life" (Cherise) and "Mama Will Provide" (Syreeta and company). From last fall's The Wiz we are treated to "Ease on Down the Road" and Michael repeating his "So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard?." Syreeta and Ariel offer "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" (although why at this time, I am a little unclear, as it was used in Ain't Misbehavin'). From The Color Purple, which WBTT presented in fall 2015, Ariel sings "Push Da Button," Syreeta sings "I'm Here," and the company sings the title song. The act ends with excerpts from the most successful black musical of all time, Dreamgirls, which includes "Move (You're Steppin' On My Heart)," When I First Saw You," "Dreamgirls," "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," and "Steppin' to the Bad Side." A reprise of "On Broadway" brings everything around full circle.
Broadway in Black is one of Nate Jacobs' strongest revues, or maybe it's just me, since this music is my reason for living. Donald Frison outdoes himself with choreography that is more in the style of Broadway than the pop idiom he usually works in. LaTerry Butler does a superlative job leading his band from split-keyboard and piano. No bass player is listed in the program, although I can attest to the fact that James E. (Jay) Dodge II was in the pit on the first Sunday matinee performance. The others are Jamar Camp on associate keyboards and Donald "Snoopy" Watts on drums. There is no credit for the gorgeous costumes, but I am betting on regular WBTT costume designer Cristy Owen. The women all look fabulous and the men, unbelievably handsome in various formal outfits. The fabulous wigs are by Joyce Ward, and lighting design is by the always excellent Ryan E. Finzelber. WBTT regulars Annette Breazeale (property master) and Juanita Mumford (production stage manager) are at their regular places.
Broadway in Black is my favorite WBTT revue, ever. Sometimes it is hard to notice, but a little bit at a time costumes get a little richer, wigs improve, dancing gets more varied and suddenly I notice that the whole level of production, which at WBTT is always high, has gotten just a little more something. For anyone who has never experienced this company, winter residents are long gone and seats, which sometimes can be scarce, are available. Don't miss this joyful summer outing. If the fates are kind, I will get a chance to sneak in for a second peak.
Black on Broadway presented by West Coast Black Theatre Troupe, through July 23, 2017, at 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota, Florida, 366-1505. For more information visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.