A Life’s Journey on the Wings of Song

Breath and Imagination (Colony Theatre)userpic=colonyExploring a life on stage. This is a common theme in the theatre, especially if the life is an interesting one. It was the theme of Friday’s show, “Humor Abuse; it is the theme of the two musicals whose cast albums I recently purchased (“Chaplin” and “Scandalous“); and it was the theme of the show we saw last night at The Colony Theatre (FB) — “Breath and Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes” by Daniel Beaty (FB). The exploration of a life can be magical on stage — it can draw the audience into an experience they never knew, and it can both show and share that spark that propelled the protagonist along their journey. If the story is told right, the audience can walk out of the theatre with a little of that spark inside them, excited to learn more about the protagonist, and with an urge to incorporate that spark into their being.  For me, although I found “Breath and Imagination” an interesting and beautiful journey, I didn’t walk out with that spark.

Breath and Imagination” tells the life story of Roland Hayes (1887-1977), an American Lyric Tenor who was the first African-American artist to receive wide acclaim. The facts in the story agree pretty much with the truth, at least as described by Wikipedia and some other biographies of Roland Hayes, so I’m not going to attempt to re-summarize Hayes’ life story. There were some liberties taken with the timeline (such as who introduced Hayes to Caruso), some facts glossed over (such as the fact he married his cousin, or the fact that he had a brother), and the framing device (the creation of a mixed-race music school at the plantation in George where he grew up) does not appear supported by the facts. The latter is the most problematic, for it leaves the audience with the impression that Hayes created the school to stand up to the racial problems in Georgia. Hayes did attempt to combat racism — both by setting an example of what an African American artist can do, and by pushing for integrated seating in the halls where he performed. Yet neither of those aspects was stressed in the production; rather, it was the fictional creation of a music school where blacks and whites studied together. Perhaps this is where the spark was dimmed.

Daniel Beaty (FB) attempts to tell this story by focusing on the relationship between Hayes and his mother, Fanny Hayes, who he called Angel ‘Mo. Interspersed and told through Negro Spirituals and operatic songs that Hayes sung throughout his life, this relationship and the significant incidents in Hayes’ life are told through vignettes involve Roland, his mother, and occasionally a third character (provided by the accompanist). The story generally moves forward from his young life on the plantation to his success on the stage; it is framed by the opening of the school, and occasionally flashbacks to the incident where his wife and daughter were arrested and physically assaulted for sitting down to purchase shoes in the whites-only section of a shoe store in Rome GA. Through the vignettes, we see how Angel ‘Mo encouraged Roland to pursue singing and spirituals, yet was less enthused when he moved his focus from the church to the stage. We also see some of the various obstacles that Roland overcame in his life, from a life as a sharecropper to the life in the city with limited finances, to the different types of racism he faced in both the south and the north, to his acceptance in Europe (although the story does not show the problems he faced in Germany), to the problems he faced in the “new South” in the mid-1940s.

This is not a musical, although it is filled with music. The music in the show serves to showcase and frame Hayes’ talent (and the musicality he inherited from his parents), but the words of the music do not propel or illuminate the story. The music in the story primarily illuminates Hayes’ talent and the musical environment he grew up in. The music was beautiful, primarily slower spirituals and operatic arias (you can find a full list here). The problem — to me — is that the music needs to be the kindling against which the spark of the story works; when successful, the two combine to create a blaze that excites and warms the soul. My musical tastes are not excited by either operatic arias or spirituals presented operatically (folk-style is a different matter). As a result, I didn’t walk out of the show with the combination making me to “Wow!”; I walked out going “Nice.”. The music flew, but didn’t soar.

Where does the fault lie for this problem? I’m not sure. Some is probably me, as this is a style of music that does not excite me. Part of it belongs to Daniel Beaty (FB)’s story, which does not completely bring out the excitement and energy. Part of it belongs to the director, Saundra McClain (FB), who does not bring out the excitement and joy of these characters in the actors — the performed Hayes appears very controlled and restrained, just like the music that he sings. It is just that somewhere, something — or more like, some energy — is missing.  This is not to say the story is bad or uninteresting, or that it was performed poorly. I just contrast this with Friday’s “Humor Abuse“, and if the words describing “HA” were “energy” and “excitement”, the words that describe “B&I” were “control” and “beauty”.

The problem was certainly not in the performances. As Roland Hayes, Elijah Rock (FB) became the author’s vision of Hayes — a controlled powerful man who grew up with music, with a beautiful tenor voice that floated musically, battling the discrimination of his time to become a musical artist. He was paired with Karen Kendrick (FB) as Angel Mo. Kendrick’s performance was remarkable — not only did she have a lovely voice, but she demonstrated a number of acting nuances that caught my eye and made her character real (such as her motion tic when she was playing the elderly Angel Mo, especially when contrasted with the youthful Angel Mo). Rounding out the cast was Kevin Ashworth (FB)  as the accompanist as well as a number of other small roles (from Roland’s father to a Georgia police officer to a voice teacher to Miss Robinson at Fisk to King George V). Ashworth played the piano beautifully, and disappeared into the various short roles inbetween. All were great performances; the show was worth seeing for the strength of the performances alone.

The scenic design by Shaun L. Motley (FB) was simple — a piano, a multilevel wooden stage that was elegant but unadorned. The feeling was that of a concert hall, but when combined by the props and set dressing of MacAndMe (FB) and the performances of the actors, portions of the stage were transformed into various other locations, including a sharecroppers farms. Also assisting in these transformations were the simple but effective costumes of Dianne K. Graebner (FB). The lighting design by Jared A. Sayeg (FB) worked well to establish the mood — I particularly noted the use of the projections against the back of the stage and striplights on the side and top of the stage.  Some special credit should also be given to Orlando de la Paz, who was the scenic artist and painted the faux wooden floor.  The sound design by Dave Mickey (FB) was a little more problematic. It was excellent in the clarity of the sounds, and particularly in the quality and directionality of the sound effects in a number of different scenes. It was overly noticeable, however, in the reverb during the concert scenes.  Musical arrangements were by Mike Ruckles (FB), with additional arrangements and musical direction by Rahn Coleman. Mary K. Gabrysiak (FB) was the production stage manager. “Breath and Imagination” was staged and directed by Saundra McClain (FB).

A comment or two about the audience at this performance. First, it was nice to see a contingent of students from Burbank High School — it is so important to expose students to the arts. Second, I noticed what I’ll call the “Pasadena Playhouse Effect” at this show. This refers to the fact that whenever Sheldon Epps would produce a show with an African American theme at the Pasadena Playhouse, suddenly the audience would change… hue. In other words, more African-Americans attend shows about African-Americans, with the white audience for those shows seemingly shrinking. This has always bothered me — I believe good theatre is good theatre, and you can find something in every story and life portrayed that will resonate, even if it is from a different culture and experience than your own. I wish everyone would attend theatre — being a theatre audience is my passion and my joy. Perhaps one day we’ll reach the point where there won’t be obvious hue shifts in an audience depending on the subject of the show. That, perhaps, might make Roland Hayes happy — he wanted people of all colors to attend his shows, and wanted to be seen as an artist, and not just a black artist.

Breath and Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes” has one more week at The Colony Theatre (FB), closing on October 13.  Tickets are available through the Colony website, and they have been available through Goldstar in the past (although as I write this, there are no current offers). The next production at the Colony is “Miracle on South Division Street” by Tom Dudzick, running November 9 through December 15, 2013 (alas, there are no performances Thanksgiving weekend, which screwed up shifting my tickets back one week). Colony is also doing a special production on October 19, 2013, focused on Gene Kelly called “Gene Kelly – The Legacy” (FB). Ticket prices range from $29 to $59.

Dining Notes: Some sad news here. Our normal go-to place before the Colony has been Cafe Columbia on Glenoaks. Alas, they seem to have closed sometime in the last 30 days — their website is wiped, and their phone has a closed message.  I’ll miss their excellent food, and I wonder what happened. Luckily, we recently found another good Columbian restaurant, La Maria, in Burbank. However, we didn’t have time to get there, so Fuddruckers it was.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Next week sees me at the West Coast Premier of “Burnt Street Boys at the Third Street Theatre (FB).  The third week of October had been held for the production of “Carrie – The Musical (FB) by Transfer Theatre, but this production will now be in 2014. I may go to “Gene Kelly – The Legacy” (FB) at the Colony; I may find something else on Goldstar.  October ends with the Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) production of “Kiss Me Kate” (October 26). November starts with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi (FB). That will be followed by a visit with Thomas the Tank Engine when we volunteer at OERM over Veterans Day.  The third week will be theatre-ish, as we attend ARTS’s Nottingham Village (FB) (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market — tickets are now on sale). One of those weekends we’re also likely to see a Trollplayers (FB) production of Steven Schwartz’s Children of Eden” (which runs November 8-17) [Trollplayers is the community theatre group at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Northridge]. The weekend before Thanksgiving will be very busy with three shows: Tom Paxton (FB) in concert at McCabes Santa Monica (FB) on Friday; “Play It Again Sam” at REP East (FB) on Saturday, and the rescheduled “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving weekend is currently open, as is much of December (December is due to the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) in New Orleans, which has me out of two the first two weekends in December… but has me wondering about New Orleans theatre), but should bring “The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School, and “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.