Monday, July 14, 2003

Players pour hearts into disjointed OTR musical

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

There's so much energy and conviction and clear hard work for a good cause to blueS alleY caT that I wish I could recommend it as something more than a neighborhood, summertime "We think Over-the-Rhine is great and let's put on a show about it!" kind of evening - make that long evening.

I read the original script, so I have a great deal of admiration for director Lyle Benjamin, who has reworked and enlivened beyond recognition something that was unstageable.

This is an independently produced production at School for Creative and Performing Arts. Benjamin fills the SCPA stage with lively movement (thanks to the energetic street dancing of Phantasee Entertainment and good work by a quartet of choreographers).

Benjamin has cast actors with strong presence, a good thing since all characters are merely sketched in to push forward to the next scenes and songs and the wise arcing message that there are no clear rights and wrongs in Over-the-Rhine. The only solution will be finding a way to work together.

The problem is that the show's starting point is a song cycle, a collection of musical musings on Over-the-Rhine by Joe Gorman which don't translate to a tell-a-story-from-start-to-finish musical, which is what the script does.

The best of the songs are clever with a good beat (and OTR touchstones abound in the lyrics), but that does not a musical make.

There's no attempt to illuminate character, only place. Before too long you notice that a lot of them are saying the same thing in only slightly different ways.

A couple of them actually sound like commercial jingles (and I don't mean just the one that's supposed to be a commercial jingle for Stenger's Cafe.)

Enough of the cast have singing voices strong enough to sell the material, and they couldn't ask for better back up than WorldwidE.

The show runs about 21/2 hours, as it wends its way through a predictable story about Councilwoman Tonya Banks (Taylore Mahogany Scott) who adopts her nephew Jamael (Isaiah McGiven) even as she is embroiled in a market housing initiative that is inviting big controversy. On the side of the opposition is her estranged father Blue (Daryl Harris), a political activist who was an absentee parent.

Benjamin has come up with a clear dramatic line here, but the way the script and score work against each other is exhausting for the audience.

Tonya and Jamael wander in and out to accommodate Gorman's wide-ranging songs which visit Washington Park, Main Street, SCPA, Stenger's, the New Prospect Baptist Church and various OTR issues, including the homeless, the Appalachian and African-American populations and digital Rhine.

Scott, who's done some outstanding work with Cincinnati Shakespeare, shows off a decent set of pipes, but she doesn't get much support for what could be an interestingly complex character from the script or her songs.

WorldwidE vocalist Pete Hall turns up the charisma every time he sings and is adorably geeky the rest of the time. Kamau Means does what he can with the role of a young widower whose daughter is the object of Jamael's affection.

Khrys Styles does some big singing in a quick appearance as Jamael's mom, and Ken Early sounds fine as a man with his own agenda. Aretta Baumgartner brings warmth to a medley of roles.

Scene designer Brad Gerard does a nice job of creating constant location changes (including a filmed tour of OTR from what looks like the point-of-view of a passenger seat aboard a Metro bus.) The stage has the look of an OTR street corner, complete with mailbox, park bench, traffic light and two-story brick flats.

BlueS alleY caT, 7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through Aug. 3, 2:30 p.m. July 19 and Aug. 2, SCPA, 1310 Sycamore St.. $25; $18. 362-2713.



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