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BWW Review: BLAX THE MUSICAL at Lucernaire

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French-language musical hommage to blaxploitation movies

BWW Review: BLAX THE MUSICAL at Lucernaire

In the 70s, New York City was not the Disneyland it is today. Time Square was a den of drugs and prostitution, and a cab wouldn't even take you to Harlem. That was the time of blaxploitation, a cinematic genre that trafficked in cartoonishly stereotypical African American characters often involved in the world of crime. But in these movies, African American actors were now in the lead, not just in the supporting roles of sidekicks, villains, or victims that they had been in American movies. Originally targeting Black audiences, the genre soon spread into more mainstream movie theaters, as Hollywood studios realized the profitability of wider production and distribution. Shaft and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song are famous examples. They were also the first to feature funk and soul music in their song tracks by riding the Motown wave. The Broadway musical Dreamgirls in 1981 was the first big hit using that music vernacular, although the darkest aspects of blaxploitation outside of the music industry were better depicted in Cy Coleman's musical The Life in 1997. Echos of that overlooked (but soon to be revived for Encores!) masterpiece can be found in the four-actor chamber piece musical BLAX, currently at the Lucernaire Theater near Montparnasse after several readings and previews before the pandemic delayed its opening in the City of Lights.

BWW Review: BLAX THE MUSICAL at Lucernaire
Orlando Louis, Rachel Gardner Smith, Myriana Hatchi, and Éric Vincent.

Referring to Stax Records on its poster, BLAX is an original jukebox musical using mostly recordings from that storied label in its soundtrack. Set in a mythical Harlem gangland, this soul funk musical follows Blackjack, skillfully played by Éric Vincent, on his quest to avenge the murder of his girlfriend by Daddy King, the neighborhood drug kingpin hilariously portrayed by Orlando Louis, with the help of Foxy Jones, depicted with gusto by Rachel Gardner Smith. Rounding out the cast is promising newcomer Myriana Hatchi in the role of Coffy Browning.

BWW Review: BLAX THE MUSICAL at Lucernaire

These fictional characters are inspired by the actors' personalities, who originated, choreographed, and wrote the piece in collaboration with director Simon Leblond: a labor of love stemming from over 20 years of touring together round the world with the soul, funk, and disco revue Les Brown Sugar. In fact, each of the four actors in BLAX plays several supporting parts. Their obvious camaraderie is put to particularly good effect when gender swapping, a comparatively new but fashionable device also used in London in the musical Mince Meat at the Southwark Playhouse and the hippie version of Pippin at the Charring Cross Theatre.

BWW Review: BLAX THE MUSICAL at Lucernaire

The minimalist set design by Leblond succeeds in leaving much to the imagination, and the evocative period costumes, designed by the Les Brown Sugar, are impeccably enhanced by the nearly cinematic lighting of Denis Schlepp. The sound problems the particular night that I saw it are now being solved, fortunately; singing live to background tracks is never easy, especially in a multi-theater complex such as the Lucernaire.

Smoothly directed by Leblond and splendidly performed by the multi-talented cast, this jukebox musical is a ton of fun and is clearly something not to be missed for French musical lovers still waiting for the blockbuster musicals to finally return to Paris later this fall.


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From This Author Patrick Honoré