BWW Reviews: VISIONARY MAN Furthers Inspirational Calling of J.B. Murray
"Spirit tells me lots of things. It likes to talk." And talk it did to J.B. Murray, a man who believed that the Holy Spirit came to him in a vision and called him into the service of the Lord. At the age of 70 this illiterate Southern farmer began to paint and write non-semantic script (a kind of written language of his own) on every surface he had available to him - scraps of paper, wood paneling, old stove tops - all of them would eventually become covered with the beautiful and peculiar images that filled his head from his visions. He called it "the language of the Holy Spirit, direct from God" and would explain what the writing said by reading it through a glass of water that acted as a kind of transformative pair of glasses.
What makes his story so unusual is that Murray had never shown an inclination for art in all of his years. He was a deeply religious man but he couldn't read or write. He lived in rural Georgia in a shack without running water or electricity, and spent his days happy with the simplicity of his life. Then one day a spiritual eagle passed before his eyes while he was watering his potatoes and everything changed.
There were those who believed in him, like his daughter Sara, and others who called him crazy, like his politically ambitious son Marcus. Regardless, Murray kept on creating always knowing that Spirit would provide what was needed to spread his message to the world.
Murray's story is the subject of the original musical VISIONARY MAN by Mary Padgelek and Tom Coleman, now in its world premiere at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood. Like many, I had never heard of J.B. Murray before seeing the musical, but watching his story unfold and seeing how he continues to touch lives with his art, it's clear that his ability to move people has not diminished, even since his death. "I paint hope," he says simply when explaining what he does and I found as I left the theater that I too had been gifted a dose of that precious commodity to take with me.
Still, there are times when the writers don't seem to trust the power of their story and, as if to compensate, have added scenes or songs that try to make it bigger, which only deviates from, rather than furthers, the action. A song about the church ladies going to the Thanksgiving Day sales had me questioning the point and a Gospel version of "Say Amen" felt like its purpose was only to place a halleluiah number early in the show. But in the moments it relaxes and scenes becomes real, VISIONARY MAN is wonderful.
That's due mainly to the performance of Jimmer Bolden as J.B Murray. The real story is on his face, in the honesty of his acting, and in the personal way he expresses a musical phrase. "It's The Storm Not Me," which closes Act I is as good as it gets for a musical inspiration and Bolden's pipes lift it up beautifully.
Will North also gives a fine performance as Dr. Williams, based on Dr. William Rawlings, the country doctor who befriends Murray by beginning regular visits to the elder man's home when he stops coming to his office. North's natural likability and folksy narration enhance the framework of the show by allowing the audience to come to the story rather than the story being forced upon the audience. That's important because Murray never pushed, and when the musical does, it lessens the impact of its message. He had the power to see a person's greater self and, even more importantly, he had the ability to get people to see who they really were. That was his mission and that's what makes his story so significant.
The supporting cast eagerly brings Murray's family members and friends to life but they are often only given broad strokes in the writing from which to develop their characters. Jacquelin Schofield is his dutifully loyal daughter Sara and Yorke Fyer his contrary son Samuel who initially has great difficulty believing in his father. Ernest Williams plays the Reverend Crawford with proper evangelical style and Sequoia Houston, Courtney Turner and Stephanie Martin are the three busybody church ladies whose efforts to play it big for audience laughs often push them over the top. Caitlin Gallogly, as art dealer Anne Hanes, is the only actor with a Southern accent and Joshua LeDuc, in stereotypical beret, beard, and striped cape, plays art dealer Paul Nelson. Ali North's energetic choreography also adds an artsy '60s style theatricality to production numbers but the ones that resonate more strongly are those that are organic.
Happily, we do get to see the real J.B. Murray and some of his paintings in video projections near the end of the musical. A tribute to his life such as this wouldn't be satisfying without them. Ultimately it is that image of a completely complete man whose passion and belief created an extraordinary body of work that makes the biggest impact. It is a tale worth telling and I know I am better for having heard it.
July 26 - August 31, 2014
Spirited Hands Productions at Hudson Mainstage
6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: (323) 960-7787 or www.plays411.com/visionary