Review: BLACK LEGENDS at 13ème Art

A Musical Tour through Black American History

By: Oct. 26, 2023
Review: BLACK LEGENDS at 13ème Art

After many different incarnations since it first appeared as Swinging Life at L’Alhambra in 2009 and 2012, Valéry Rodriguez’s brainchild—now called Black Legends—has just begun its second "season" in the new 13ème Art auditorium, following its sold-out run at Bobino last winter.  With a lot of new numbers added to the end of the show, notably from the Michael Jackson repertoire (“Jam”, “Black or White,” “They Don’t Care About Us”), a hip-hop medley, lively LED walls and lighting by Christophe Mazet, and enhanced choreography by Thomas Bimaï (Flashdance), assisted by William Alberi, Black Legends fully deserves a second visit, even if the first half of the show hasn’t changed since its Bobino run. 

Rodriguez, a musical theater performer who played Banzai in the French-language version of The Lion King, is a white guy who has always been influenced by jazz and black culture.  Inspired by the musical revue Smokey Joe’s Café, which he first saw in London in the late 90s, to put on his own show, he mounted Swinging Life. The show was a big hit in Paris, but Rodriguez wanted to transform it into a something with more political resonance.  Thus was born Black Legends, which has become an even bigger hit in the French capital.Review: BLACK LEGENDS at 13ème Art  

The 27-member cast—showing off an enormous number of costumes by Sabrina Gomis-Vallée and Sami Bedioui, with wigs and makeup by Pauline Fazzari (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)—covers the history of American black culture, from the swinging 20s to today, with numbers from Cab Calloway, The Supremes, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye—in fact all the biggest names—to  contemporary giants like Prince, Earth Wind & Fire, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, and Beyoncé.  The arrangements by musical director Christophe Jambois are superb, and the musicians perform them with just the right swing.Review: BLACK LEGENDS at 13ème Art     

Standing out in the large cast are William Saint-Val (backup singer for Michel Jonasz, Céline Dion, and Maria Carey, and Thibald in the musical Romeo and Juliette), notable for his physical and vocal prowess.  Amalya (French television’s The Voice and Dancing with the Stars, and the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and Anandha Seethanen (The Lion King, Hair, Hairspray, Cabaret) both bring true star quality to the stage.  The well-known Parisian cabaret singer Barry Johnson adds wisdom while Christian Schummer (Fame, Footloose, Hairspray, Swinging Life) brings some non-binarism into the mix.  And Myriana Hatchi (Blax the Musical, The Lion King) exudes charisma.  The excellent supporting cast contributes to a strong communal energy that draws the audience in.Review: BLACK LEGENDS at 13ème Art  

Too bad lesser-known material from The Life and Dreamgirls, essential musicals about black culture excerpts of which were included in Swinging Life, have now been discarded, but that’s probably because the new revue wants to focus on radio hits everyone knows.  Perhaps too didactic and literal at times, especially during the first half, Black Legends is pure, first-rate entertainment, with emphasis on the historical background of the music it brilliantly showcases.  If you’re in Paris, don’t miss it until the end of January. 


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From This Author - Patrick Honoré

Patrick Honoré runs the magazine and has been a musical theater critic for 15 years, sarting as the French Musical Corespondant for the paper edition of Musical Stages in London... Patrick Honoré">(read more about this author)


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