BWW Review: Cliff Odle's LOST TEMPO: Ode to Jazz and Rhythm of Life
Written by Cliff Odle, Directed by Diego Arciniegas; Scenic Design, Jeffrey Petersen; Lighting Design, Evey Connerty-Marin; Sound Design, J Jumbelic; Costume Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Stage Manager, Brittney Page
Musicians: Tenor Saxophone, Andrew DeNicola (Nick See, Oct. 5); Drums, Samuel Kjellberg; Bass, Matthew Stavrakas
Performances through October 22 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.bostonplaywrights.org
Boston Playwrights' Theatre (BPT) is an award-winning professional theatre dedicated to new works. Frequently, they produce new plays by alumni of the Boston University Playwriting program, taking great care to provide a safe and nurturing environment for the growth and development of their homegrown talent. Cliff Odle is a 2009 graduate of the program, and his play Lost Tempo opens the 36th season, setting the bar high for the rest of the 2017-2018 schedule. Odle's ode to jazz and its place in the transitional period of the late 1950s to early 1960s is a fully-realized piece of theater with a laser focus on the highs and lows of the men and women living in that tilt-a-whirl world.
Lost Tempo benefits greatly from the reconfiguration of the 949 Commonwealth Avenue theater space, completed over the summer by scenic designer Jeffrey Petersen. A raised, circular stage virtually floats in the middle of the room, surrounded by a mix of cabaret-style tables and movable chairs a few steps below. At the far end are rows of tiered seating, while the near end features a small bar, a corner enclosure for the musicians, and an overhead sound booth. Evey Connerty-Marin's lighting design plays a major role in setting moods, delineating flashback scenes, and separating backstage action from performances in Mitzy's Jazz Kitchen. Sound designer J Jumbelic finds the right mix for the live music, vocal scatting, and dialogue, as well as inserting eerie echoing voices in moments from the past. Rachel Padula-Shufelt's costume designs further define the characters.
Director Diego Arciniegas does a first-rate job of translating Odle's play with music into a living, breathing entity with a rhythmic ebb and flow. He gives the audience the distinct flavor of being in a nightclub, being entertained by a fabulous trio of live musicians (Andrew DeNicola on tenor saxophone, Samuel Kjellberg on drums, and Matthew Stavrakas on bass), and watching genuine relationships play out among the characters in what feels like real-life situations in real time. The synopsis is that mercurial jazz saxophonist Willie "Cool" Jones (Omar Robinson) comes back to Harlem five years after decamping for Paris, picking up where he left off with his old flame "Babs" (EveLyn Howe), who has promised him part-ownership in Mitzy's, and hooking up with the guys from his former quartet every Saturday night.
Old-timer "Mack" (Mishell Lilly) and drummer "Sporty" (Arthur Gomez) are happy to reunite and have a steady gig, but horn-player Lane (Kinson Theodoris) has some unfinished business with his old leader and makes it known that he wants a more prominent role in the group. In addition, the ambitious "Cool" has to keep his inner demons at bay, finding a way to nurture his musical genius while staying clean. Further complicating matters, his sister Sheila "She-She" Jones (Miranda ADEkoje) comes to see him and encourages him to step away from his life, to join her in the Nation of Islam for his own well-being. With her arrival and story arc, Odle gives us a hint of some dysfunctional family dynamics, as well as a glimpse of societal changes on the horizon. Most of us recognize the 60s as a period of change and turbulence, but the playwright reminds us that the 50s were not nearly so tranquil and bland as we might think.
Robinson is making his BPT debut and gives a compelling performance that is both cool and hot. He captures his character's cocky side and devotion to the music on the one hand, and his self-esteem issues that feed his addiction on the other. Robinson's portrayal lets us see "Cool" at his best and his worst, and his chemistry with each of the other characters is nuanced and spot on. Romantic sparks fly between Robinson and Howe, but "Babs" is much more than a love interest. Her feelings for him do not blind her to his flaws, and Odle has written her as a strong woman who knows how to protect herself and her business. "She-She" is also written as a strong woman, but ADEkoje conveys her with a great deal of warmth and compassion. However, when she is pushed, her inner strength comes through and she does not cave to pressure.
Lane is an excitable young man, flexing his virtual muscles to vie for control with "Cool," and Theodoris seems ready to emit steam, especially when his quest for respect is thwarted. The cooler "Cool" plays it, the hotter Lane gets. His bandmates are much more copacetic with the status quo. "Mack" has been around, and Lilly plays him as a calming influence, while "Sporty" worships "Cool," and Gomez has an endearing quality. Rounding out the ensemble is Charles Linshaw as Mort, the recording engineer in the sound booth who does his best to keep "Cool" on an even keel.
Lost Tempo is an ambitious undertaking, approximately ten years in the making, and it feels almost fully baked at this point. At times, the flashbacks are a little ill-defined, but the transitions are aided by the lighting design. The characters are well-developed and this group of actors authentically portrays them and makes us care about them. Odle successfully evokes the time and the place, and the impact of the live jazz accompaniment is immeasurable. If you go to BPT simply for the experience of enjoying a new play, you'll get that. However, for the same ticket, you'll time travel to the middle of the twentieth century and see a slice of life in The Shadows.