Thursday, July 10, 2003

Seeing the BIG picture

'Popera' hears the shots, shouts and quiet hum of Over-the-Rhine

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Why the funny capitalization in the title? It's part of thinking differently about Over-the-Rhine, says composer Joe Gorman.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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Stranger with a strange name/
sewn inside his hat.
A mystery ridin' on a train/
the blueS alleY caT.

In the mid-'80s, Joe Gorman was living in Over-the-Rhine and working as a community organizer. He was also writing songs about the neighborhood and its people.

It's taken almost 20 years and a riot for Gorman's songs to become a musical, blueS alley caT, which debuts tonight at the School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Set in post-riot OTR, the story takes its themes of gentrification, city politics and family from the neighborhood's streets and our city's headlines.

At the center of blueS alleY caT are a conflict about plans for a housing project and a story of a young city councilwoman who takes responsibility for her nephew while her sister serves a prison term.

"I wanted to make sure that our primary message was that kids need parents, teachers, mentors to become productive citizens, spiritual artists, solid workers, good parents and great neighbors," says Gorman.

A musical was the last thing on Gorman's mind. "I wanted to simply have a concert of the songs I've written about Over-the-Rhine. But my friend Lee Horvitz talked me into doing a full-blown musical.

[IMAGE] Khrys Styles plays Re Re Davis, a woman who must leave her son (played by Isaiah McGivens) to serve prison time.
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"It's a community full of operatic themes: crime, litter, homicide, love, food and beer!"

Gorman, now of Northside, owns and operates DreamSand Publications, which includes music publishing.

"Since I primarily write pop songs for soap operas, I called it a 'popera.' " Gorman says. "Lee has a doctorate in philosophy, so he naturally loves to expound. His first draft was over 400 pages."

Director Lyle Benjamin whittled the script to 150 pages with 18 songs.

The show, says Benjamin, is a celebration of Over-the-Rhine told through "a stream of scenes and images."

"It's a cultural Mulligan's stew we're throwing out to the community," promises Gorman. "Black, white, professionals, amateurs, children, adults."

Benjamin has rounded up a solid cast, including Cincinnati Shakespeare's Taylore Mahogany Scott, Kamau Means, Ken Early and, in the title role, Darryl Harris.

Isaiah McGivens, who'll enter sixth grade at SCPA, plays the nephew, Jamael, who quickly becomes embroiled in OTR's many issues, none of them clearly black or white.

Dance company Phantasy Entertainment will punctuate the action. Cammy-winning funk band WorldwidE provides the music.

And what about that title?

"I wanted something that expressed difficulty to complete," Gorman explains. "I devised this 'OTR font' where I started printing out the lyrics of my songs using a last-letter capitalization. It was challenging, yet exciting. I had to concentrate to complete the word.

"It's like the way I want people to think differently about Over-the-Rhine. Yes, it has poverty, it's full of litter and guns and ignorance and discombobulated families, but there is a vitality that seems to hum under the ground. ...

"We think so small. People say, 'There's nothing going on, Cincinnati's not a hip place to be.' I'm saying, we have a great place to live and there are a lot of great people living here."

If you go

What: blueS alleY caT

When: 7 p.m. today through Saturday, July 17-20, 24-26 and July 31-Aug. 3, 2:30 p.m. July 19 and Aug. 2..

Where: School for Creative and Performing Arts, 1310 Sycamore St.

Tickets: $18 and $25. 362-2713 or Web site.

There's more: Work by nine local artists will be at SCPA during the production. The art interprets scenes and characters from the musical and Over-the-Rhine.

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