Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Musical revues are tricky. Without a gifted director’s vision to hold the sections together as integral pieces, the revue can easily deadpan into linear catalogues of disconnected musical numbers. Almost as daunting is the combined director-choreographer role—being gifted in one category does not assure superlative ability in the other. Olney Theater’s production of Eubie!, while acceptable, would have been better served with more creative direction, a semblance of vision, playful choreography and all around better artistry.
And it’s a shame because the love for this Baltimore’s favorite son is abundant and runs deep. Olney made special arrangements with Baltimore’s famous Blacks In Wax Museum to have his life-size replica at his piano in the lobby as if welcoming patrons to the musical. Actual recordings of his playful interviews are interspersed throughout the production. Also, the backdrop stills in the opening montage were carefully designed and feature something I’ve never seen before—Blake in his familiar older years, then, the picture changes right before our eyes and morphs into his younger self in the exact same portrait position. Unfortunately, the rest of the production did not reach that level of exciting creativity.
The rather large cast has a good time with the material, and while some voices are stronger than others, mainly they are hamstrung without some dazzling direction to set the joint a jumping. The theatrical depictions of the musical numbers are literal, stagy, and frankly a bit tired. Rolling the huge judges’ bench centerstage to depict a lecherous judge fawning over an enticing defendant—where’s the creativity there? Parading a malcontented hang-dogged wife around the stage chasing down her philandering husband—yet, again? Roz White Gonzales, one of the more theatrically polished performers in the show does what she can to belt out her funny "Handyman," but she seems pitifully alone, unsupported by any interesting direction; even the skimpy costume that’s supposed to show off her assets is unflattering in its cut and design. Similarly, Fredena J. Williams, a relative newcomer to the metro area, fends for herself by shimmying, delighting the crowd with her fancy footwork, and showing that a big girl can be athletic with crowd pleasing appeal—but again, she had to deliver her own goods, and without any top-notch choreography to seal the deal, her "Great Big Baby" number comes across as coyingly gimmicky.
After some sparkling costume changes (hit or miss designs by Nanzi Adzima), the first act ends with a rousing, Ailey-looking gospel number, "Roll Jordan," and while the vocals are strong and soul stirring, the most interesting part of the choreography is the ending tableaux, so, the best part of the dance is when the performers stop dancing? That’s not the impression you want to leave. The brief second act has an engaging melancholy tone with more heart, and the men have a chance to shine with some nice musical numbers featuring D. William Hughes, and Devron T. Young, along with Randy Aaron’s rip-roaring tapping in "Hot Feet." The four piece band is top-notch and has fun with the tunes under the energetic direction of Christopher Youstra. They’re perched prominently on the second level, double-staircased platform, scenic design by Daniel Conway, that offers the performers some effective level changes, topped off with "Eubie!" emblazoned in Broadway-style lights.
Director/choreographer Tony Parise has some amazing Broadway credits and has successfully mounted hit shows all over the world. Not sure what happened here where the music alone should be enough to assure an Exuberant! time. This production of Eubie! at Olney, while good enough to twinkle, is far from the knockout sparkling gem it really should be.
(Running time: Approx: 1:50 with intermission) Eubie! plays through April 29th at Olney Theater, Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. For tickets, contact the Box Office: 301-924-3400 or http://www.olneytheatre.org/