Sunday, May 14, 2000

'Spunk' has sass and sparkle

African-American fables come to life

        Spunk, which comprises three African-American folk fables by early 20th-century writer Zora Neale Hurston and plenty of blues, is shaking the rafters of the Shelterhouse this month. It closes out Playhouse in the Park's 40th season with a giant Adrenaline rush.

        Conceived by theatrical artist George C. Wolfe (Jelly's Last Jam, Broadway's current The Wild Party) and interpreted here by Ken Roberson, Spunk celebrates a great American literary voice that was all but lost for decades. It's a purely American musical style and maybe most importantly the art of storytelling.

        The six-member cast weaves an emotional net as they enact the trio of stories, yanking at our funny bones, our heartstrings and finally yanking us to our feet.

(Tony Jones photo)
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        There's the rural Florida tale of a long-abused wife, the spark long beaten out of her by a brutal, unfaithful husband who has turned murderous. (It comes with a happy ending — they all do.)

        Then there's an Alabama country boy's hilarious attempt to conquer the Big City. Costumer Austin Sanderson's outrageous zoot suits and lady's ensemble (complete with blazing red-and-yellow gloves and platform shoes) take a starring role.

        Finally there is the bittersweet fable of a poor but deliriously happy young couple whose perfect love is knocked awry by an unwise reach for gold. What they learn is that there are riches that can't be bought with money, but can be lost for the lust for it.

        Mr. Roberson is director and choreographer of Spunk, and he instills this production with energy and joy, the kind that embraces the audience and invites us to become a very vocal part of the action. (The staging does seem to favor the center audience section more than the sides.)

        Mary Bond Davis, looking like a Harlem Renaissance diva, is our guide through Spunk, moving the story along through song and taking an occasional supporting role.

        Helping her navigate these theatrically scenic highways and byways is Cedric H. Turner's Guitar Man, who's never far from a melody. Together they make the whole ride graceful, effortless and an endless good time.

        The entire ensemble is a delight. (Count up the not-to-be-forgotten performances on the Playhouse stages this season — it's a dazzling number.)

        In Spunk, Heather Alicia Simms is particularly impressive as she plays the central female role in all three stories, transforming herself from a human shell to a sassy uptown girl to a newlywed radiantly basking in youth and love.

        The men — Marc Damon Johnson, John-Andrew Morrison and Scott Whitehurst — all get their chance to shine and shine they do.

        Spunk, through June 4, Playhouse in the Park Shelterhouse, Eden Park, 421-3888.


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