BWW Review: TWISTED MELODIES Wrings Laughter, Tears At Center Stage
If you're looking for a lighthearted bit of fluff as entertainment, you won't find it in TWISTED MELODIES. Writer/Performer Kelvin Roston has created a brilliant work of heartbreak, genius and intimacy to terrify and delight patrons of Center Stage.
Now that the $32M refurbishment of Center Stage's historic building is complete, there are many shiny fancy new things to look at in the original structure. The new carpet deliberately mimics freshly washed concrete. The angular glass, chrome, video screens and marquis lettering give the theatre entrance and lobby a nightclub atmosphere. The bar serving pre-show beverages announces its offerings on a video screen that keeps flashing back to the new Center Stage logo, making it difficult to determine pricing or even what is available. Beverage costs are commensurate with those at the Hippodrome, though parking in the garage on Madison and Calvert is is significantly less pricy- $5, but you must, like Cinderella, exit before midnight.
The stage is a wedge of a room, and it's got some incredibly clever features, some of which don't reveal themselves until quite a bit later in the intermission-less show. Scenic designer Courtney O'Neill gives us an authentic-looking '70s apartment inhabited by Donny Hathaway. The sparseness of personal details, that is to say, set dressing, give the single set the feel of a long-term hotel room. The set is a canvas for the fabulous projections of Mike Tutaj and moody lighting effects of Alan C. Edwards. Christopher LaPorte's immersive sound design rounds out the environment. And I do mean 'round'. Sound has location and directionality. It wraps all around us. These production design elements, coupled with Kelvin Roston Jr.'s gripping presence, plunge the audience from 'detached observer' status straight into 'entangled participant.' We feel right along with Donny the high of triumph and the agony of despair.
TWISTED MELODIES is an intimate journey with Donny Hathaway, the legendary singer/songwriter whose name you may have never heard. He's best known for his wonderful duets with Roberta Flack, but his career included arrangement, composition, backup keyboards and lyrics. Under the sensitive and demanding direction of Derrick Sanders, Hathaway's story unfolds in a semi-linear fashion, parceled out between songs and battles with demons. .
We see Hathaway working at his keyboard as the show opens. His clothing reflects a '70s glam sensibility, if a little more lumpily than authentic '70s polyester doubleknit would permit. The doubleknit, however, represents one of the few '70s omissions in the show. There are cigarettes, or a facsimile thereof, which burn with actual smoke. I hear some coughing in the audience. There are several nearly extinct devices that are functional props, some of which may be unrecognizable to younger theatre goers. Those 'of a certain age' will be amused by them. We observe Hathaway, like flies on his fourth wall, until he notices us. We in the audience then become his treasured confidantes, and there are some lovely moments of interaction. Roston is unafraid of pushing aside the fourth wall to speak to us, and quick-witted enough to react to audience responses with the freshness of the moment.
The show is a warm, realistic look at the human drama of the connection between artistry and madness. It is gripping, funny, touching, frightening, and full of the rich deep melodies and stirring lyrics that Hathaway was known for during his short career. As much as Kelvin Roston, Jr. moves us as an actor, his musical performance blows it all away. Roston is wonderful and genuine with keyboards and vocals, and is riveting to watch.
Technically speaking, the show falls into the category of 'jukebox musical,' a genre in which tunes already in existence are worked into a narrative script. That term feels too lighthearted for this particular offering, but by the strictest definition, it is. You may know some of the songs. You may want to sing along, as our audience does. Should it occur to you to wonder whether this is a case of "based on real events," be reassured. There are multiple dramaturgs (What's a dramaturg? Historical researcher) listed on the programme, who have ensured historical accuracy, in addition to the research done by writer Kelvin Roston himself. It rings of Truth, but also truth.
The heart-wrenching story of Hathaway's rise is emotionally gripping, but when theatrical effects are added, it becomes simply spectacular. There is a point when story, performance and theater tech intersect in an illustration of one of the most perfect examples of live theatre moments it has been my privilege to witness. All applause to the technical crew of this production.
If you are already a Hathaway fan, you really must not miss this show. If you are not already a fan, prepare to be converted. I walk into the show knowing very little of Donny Hathaway and walk out touched and changed forever. Make no mistake: this is not a feel-good show, nor is it billed as such, but there are many feel-good moments. Following them are intrusions of pain, which is a good summation of life, actually.
If you'd like a bite or a sip before or after the show, consider Center Stage's Restaurant Partners, https://www.centerstage.org/visit/partners, most of whom offer some sort of special pricing if you show your tickets or performance reminder email. The late Brass Elephant has re-opened as The Elephant and it is absolutely worth a visit.
TWISTED MELODIES plays through April 16, 2017
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm
Thursdays at 7:00 pm
Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm
Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm
Visit https://www.centerstage.org/plays-and-events/mainstage/twisted-melodies for associated Meet The Actors, After Thoughts, Together at the Table, Open Caption and Audio Described special performances
For tickets, visit https://www.centerstage.org/plays-and-events/mainstage
or contact the Box Office, 410-332-0022
Box office hours: Mon-Sat, 10am-6pm, Sun 12pm-6pm
Photo Credit: Richard Anderson