Review: YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN Is a Dream of a Production at Stages Theatre

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By: Apr. 11, 2022
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Review: YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN Is a Dream of a Production at Stages Theatre
(From left to right) Kaleb Womack, Rayevin Johnson, Sarah Sachi, and Jordan U. Okeke in YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN. Photo by Melissa Taylor

"That's the price I'(M) Willing to pay for peace."

On the heels of a significant historical moment in American history, ShaWanna Renee Rivons YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN is the glittering diamond in Houston's golden age of theater.

The story goes that Stages staff member, Eboni Bell Darcy, was part of the discussion for the theater's reopening season. Ideas floated around in the zoom call. It was Eboni's idea for Stages to commission their own jukebox musical. This excellent idea led to the creation of ShaWanna Renee Rivon's YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN.

One might suspect that a musical highlighting Houston's generational social justice problems would be a "downer." Instead, Rivon's creation has become, at least for me, the crowning achievement of the 2021-2022 Houston theater season. Many theaters commit to highlighting BIPOC plays and moving forward with EDIA conversations. However, under the direction of Eboni and Rivon, Stages has cracked the formula of highlighting homegrown BIPOC playwrights. Thanks to Eboni, Houston audiences can witness this engaging and timely production.

Review: YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN Is a Dream of a Production at Stages Theatre
Sarah Sachi in YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN. Photo by Melissa Taylor.

Set in 1960 at the height of racial desegregation in America, Rivon illustrates the tale of Houston's integration. Rivon highlights the trials and thoughts of four young Texas Southern University students. They all find themselves at the crossroads of creating change or accepting the status quo. Beyond the actor's performances, Rivon creates characters and dialogue that feel all too realistic as audience members can connect with their triumphs and their problems. This realism separates Rivon from other playwrights, as she can expertly navigate and interpret the paradox of being a BIPOC individual in Houston.

Even more striking is how Rivon helps audiences understand that while desegregation was a step in the right direction, there is still much to be done to create true equality for everyone in America. The playwright also adds music from the 1960s, as a way of highlighting the emotions of her characters. A common critique of jukebox musicals is that they tend to destabilize the plot. Rivon's CORDIALLY instead weaves the popular music of the time into her narrative expertly. You will leave the theater singing the tunes and remembering the emotions from the show simultaneously. More on this later, but an example of this is Rivon's character of Charline (Rayevin Johnson). She uses the song "Mr. Big Stuff" to explain her romantic life. Rivon is one of the best playwrights in the contemporary era and is the latest in exceptional Houstonians creating genuinely inspiring art. Here is to more plays, productions, and just about anything from the effervescent Rivon.

Review: YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN Is a Dream of a Production at Stages Theatre
Kaleb Womack and Jordan U. Okeke in YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN. Photo by Melissa Taylor.

This ensemble piece elicits some of the strongest performances from a Houston theater. The protagonist, Mae Florence, is exquisitely played by the vivacious Sarah Sachi. Sachi has the difficult job of beginning the show with a thrilling performance of "Heat Wave," demonstrating the greatness in their acting prowess. Sachi plays Mae with an incredible flourish and allows her audiences to feel every emotion, whether it be happy at the prospect of new love or the indecisiveness of joining a sorority.

Rayevin Johnson's portrayal of the incorrigible and sassy best friend, Charline, is one for the ages. Johnson's comedic timing is ablaze in this production, and her acting chops are some of the best on the Houston stage. Jordan U. Okeke, as Mae's love interest, Leo, has a voice of an angel, with his performance of the poor university student eliciting both oos and ahs. Okeke does this not only with his remarkable singing but also with his command of handling complicated emotions.

As the "rebel" Elijah, Kaleb Womack adds to this rising star cast by creating a foil for Okeke's Leo. Womack's Elijah tries to be a "man's man," but Womack portrays the underlying emotions in remarkable ways.

Finally, you can't miss the stellar performance provided by Stephanie D. Jones as Hannah. Based on the actual owner of the Eldorado Ballroom, Anna Dupree, Hannah represents Dupree as one of Houston's successful black businesswomen during the Jim Crow era. Jones portrays this Hannah with so much love that one can feel her solid sentiments by the show's climax. You will surely feel goosebumps during her performance of the song "His Eye Is On The Sparrow." The entire cast deserves every applause and admiration that comes their way.

Review: YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN Is a Dream of a Production at Stages Theatre
(From left to right) Rayevin Johnson, Sarah Sachi, Stephanie D. Jones, and Jordan U. Okeke in YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN. Photo by Melissa Taylor

Several design elements help propel Rivon's CORDIALLY to an all-new level. The most obvious is Clair Hummel's costume design. Witnessing Hummel's period-specific costumes up-close can leave a person breathless. Musical direction and arrangements by Melanie C. Bivens are not only an inspiration, but a great show of musical and technical ability. Scenic and lighting design by Chas Z. Mathieu and Jared Gooding, respectively, allow audiences to experience 1960s Houston.

Review: YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN Is a Dream of a Production at Stages Theatre
Kaleb Womack and Jordan U. Okeke in YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN. Photo by Melissa Taylor

You cannot leave this production without praising the director, Aaron Brown. With the aid of choreographer Courtney D. Jones, Brown has an exceptional artistic vision and creates a production that one can't miss. Brown and Jones have had the help of up-and-coming dramaturg Jess Elaine Ellison. Ellison's work is expertly seen throughout this production and helps create 1960s Houston in a vividly intense way.

Review: YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN Is a Dream of a Production at Stages Theatre
Sarah Sachi and Rayevin Johnson in YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN. Photo by Melissa Taylor.

I cannot emphasize enough that this jukebox musical is not only a must-see-it's legendary. Theatergoers for generations will be asking, "Do you remember YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN at Stages?" Those who witness this production will have the fortunate bliss of saying, "I was there!" Just remember, "Hey, Mr. Big Stuff! Don't flip your wig and catch this far-out production of ShaWanna Renee Rivon's YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN. I promise you will have a ball."

Review: YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN Is a Dream of a Production at Stages Theatre
Stephanie D. Jones in YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO SIT IN. Photo by Melissa Taylor

Now running April 1st - May 22nd. Tickets can be bought at Stages Houston at 800 Rosine St or at stageshouston.com. Performance times are Wednesday - Thursdays at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinee performances at 2:30pm. The run time for this production is 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. Masks are no longer a requirement at Stages but are highly encouraged. Refreshments may be taken into the theater at this time.


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