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BWW Reviews: BREATH & IMAGINATION Shouts a Jubilant Song

Jubilant Sykes and Kecia Lewis. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Hartford Stage

By Lauren Yarger
"Jubilant" is a word I could use often when reviewing Daniel Beaty's new play, BREATH & IMAGINATION, receiving its world premiere at Hartford Stage.

It's the name of star Jubilant Sykes, Sacred Music's USA Vocalist of the Year, whose portrayal of the first world-renowned African-American classical vocalist really is a jubilant symphony of the movements that make up the career and life of Roland Hayes. "Jubilant" also describes the emotion this rich, moving and satisfying work evokes. It's a joyful melody all on its own.

History, music and souls harmonize as Hayes is flooded with memories in 1942 Georgia when he dedicates his music school, named in honor of his mother, Angel Mo' (Kecia Lewis), on the site of the plantation where she had been born a slave.

When he was just a boy, (Sykes makes a stunning transition to the 8-year-old under the skillful direction of Darko Tresnjak) Angel Mo' encouraged Roland, who sang spirituals in church, to pursue his gift of preaching. It does come naturally - even when he's talking to the poor, bind horse the family uses to plow their plot of land. All that gets put on hold - including Roland's schooling - when his father dies in an industrial accident and mother and son are forced to move to Tennessee, however (with Tresnjak's clever staging bringing to life the horse, the plowing and the trip in the horse-drawn wagon). When Roland's own life is spared in another accident, Angel Mo' dedicates him to God's service and insists the boy become a preacher.

Preaching doesn't call him as strongly as music does, however and over Angel Mo's objections, Roland offers his father's treasured pocket watch to take voice lessons from Mr. Calhoun, who transforms him into an artist who uses his breath and imagination to discover the song of his soul. The instructor and a host of other characters are adroitly played by Tom Frey (2 Pianos/Four Hands) who accompanies on a piano set center stage. More than 20 musical numbers help tell the play's story (traditional spirituals and classical music mix with original songs composed by playwright Beaty. Music Direction and Arrangement are by Mike Ruckles.)

Roland wins a college scholarship as a vocal soloist with the Fisk College Jubilee Singers, a traveling concert group (in a humorous turn, Frey also portrays the group's director, Miss Robinson.) Hayes overcomes discrimination on his way to becoming the first African American to solo at Boston Symphony Hall. Concerts before crowned heads in Europe follow and ultimately, he is credited with "creating space in the classical repertoire for the Negro spiritual" according to program notes.

Lewis's pitch-perfect voice and commanding portrayal of Roland's no-nonsense, determined and loving mother is perfect harmony with Sykes' soulful portrayal fueled by a beautiful, rich baritone (he's classically trained and has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the Deutsche Oper Berlin and at Carnegie Hall). Beaty's uncompromising research (he packs an amazing amount of information into an entertaining hour and 40 minutes) is neatly tucked into what obviously is a tribute and labor of love.

Humor, drama, history and passion are keys used to play a lovely chord as Roland hears music in everything he does and Tresnjak is the conductor who puts visual artistry to the emotions and plot. One scene, where Roland's feelings and longings are revealed while he walks on top of the chairs at the music school with a revolving stage (David P. Gordon, scenic design) depicting the passage of time is particularly masterful.

This one is a must see (and I'm hoping the show will find its way onto a New York stage so I will have the pleasure of seeing it again. Lewis already has Broadway chops with turns in Leap of Faith and Chicago). A recording certainly would be welcome as well. Just Jubilant.

BREATH & IMAGINATION plays through Feb. 9 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sundays and select Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 pm. Tickets $26.50-$93.50. (860) 527-5151;

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From This Author - Lauren Yarger