BWW Review: BREATH & IMAGINATION: Inspired Launch For The Front Porch Arts Collective
Breath & Imagination
A Musical by Daniel Beaty, Directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent; Music Director, Asher Denburg; Additonal Music Direction, Doug Gerber; Scenic Design, Baron E. Pugh; Costume Design, Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design, Aja M. Jackson; Sound Design, David Wilson; Props Artisan, Lauren Corcuera; Assistant Scenic Design, Lindsay Genevieve Fuori; Production Stage Manager, Nerys Powell; Assistant Stage Manager, Athena-Gwendolyn Baptiste; Assistant Director, Audrey Seraphin; Dramaturg, Pascale Florestal; Dialect Coach, Cherie Corinne Rice
CAST: Davron S. Monroe, Yewande Odetoyinbo, Doug Gerber, Nile Scott Hawver
Performances through December 23 by The Lyric Stage Company and The Front Porch Arts Collective at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com
The Front Porch Arts Collective is a new black and brown-led theatre company committed to advancing racial equity in Boston through theater. Co-founded by Dawn M. Simmons, Artistic Director, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Executive Director, The Porch has established partnerships with the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, and is now collaborating on its first co-production with the Lyric Stage Company of Boston. After having done a series of readings in 2017-2018, the first of three staged shows in their second season is Breath & Imagination, a musical by Daniel Beaty about Roland Hayes, one of the first internationally acclaimed African-American opera singers.
From a Georgia plantation to concert halls and royal audiences in Europe, the remarkable journey of this 20th century icon is brought vividly to life thanks to first-time director Parent's intelligent, sensitive vision, and a tour de force performance by Davron S. Monroe. Appearing in his 14th show at the Lyric Stage, the bulk of which have been of the musical theater genre, Breath & Imagination is an opportunity for Monroe to show the breadth of his vocal talents. He has classical training and his resumé includes many staged and concert productions of opera. His interpretation of Hayes is informed by his training, as well as by his own experiences as an African-American artist, and he passionately conveys the emotional meaning of the operatic songs, so much so that the foreign language lyrics pose no barrier to our understanding.
Yewande Odetoyinbo (Angel Mo') as Hayes' grounded, supportive mother, is Monroe's equal, contributing her warmth and incredible vocal skills to give their relationship its authenticity. Music Director Asher Denburg provides virtuosic piano accompaniment onstage, with additional music direction by Doug Gerber. The latter also plays the role of Mr. Calhoun, Hayes' first voice teacher who introduced him to the beauty of the operatic tenor voice of Enrico Caruso. Nile Scott Hawver displays his versatility in half a dozen roles, ranging from a redneck Georgia police officer to a preacher; to Miss Robinson, a Fisk University teacher who anonymously financed Hayes' education, to an admiring King George V.
The accomplishments and achievements of Hayes fit hand in glove with the mission of The Porch. As he used his talent and celebrity to break down barriers, dispel stereotypes, and lift up other artists of color, so it is the raison d'être of the fledgling theater company to tell the stories of people of color and create greater opportunities to include them on and off the stages of Boston. Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos and the Lyric Stage Company have been in the forefront of expanding inclusiveness and actively practicing nontraditional casting.
Underpinning the inspirational story of Breath & Imagination are the contributions made by the designers. Scenic designer Baron E. Pugh uses a simple concept of floor to ceiling curved slats on the upstage wall to give the appearance of a concert hall, and suggests the plantation home of Angel Mo' with a rustic screen door on one of the upper tiers flanking the stage. Aja M. Jackson (lighting) and David Wilson (sound) provide a wide variety of cues to effectively change locales from the fields, to the church, to the concert hall, etc. Monroe is dressed in white tie and black tails most of the time, but removes the jacket and dons a newsboy cap to become Hayes as a boy. Costume designer Elisabetta Polito attires Odetoyinbo in styles and fabrics that reflect the poverty and hardscrabble existence of Angel Mo's plantation life.
Following his success in Europe, Hayes eventually returned to America and settled in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he died in 1977 at the age of 89. The local angle gives greater resonance to this compelling musical about a man whose great talent was exceeded by his determination to become an artist. The Front Porch Arts Collective does a great service by bringing his story to light. It bodes well for the future of the company, as well as the Boston theater community.
Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Asher Denburg, Davron S. Monroe)