BWW Review: THUNDER KNOCKING AT THE DOOR at Ten Thousand Things
Enjoy a rare thing: A black musical rooted in the blues that conjures up mythic characters and is also, fundamentally, a feel-good family story. THUNDER KNOCKING ON THE DOOR in the hands of the social activist theater company Ten Thousand Things is a celebration of love, music, movement, and the mystical moments that cause us to transform into new, fuller versions of ourselves. Though longer than most of the other shows TTT has toured (2 hours and 15 minutes, with an intermission), it's a great choice for the underserved audiences that are central to their mission, in detention facilities, treatment centers, high schools, and community colleges.
It's part of the TTT aesthetic to perform under regular houselights, in the round, with just a few rows of seats. Actors and audience see each other clearly. Props and set pieces are simple and mobile so they can be moved on and off stage by the actors quickly and transported easily in a van. Costumes tend toward eclectic or shabby chic.
Key to everything are the musicians, tucked in a corner of the room. Here there are two, and they are both extraordinary: Music Director Sanford Moore is on keyboards, and the spectacular guitarist Deevo pulls off the repeated solo guitar extravaganzas required by this story. It's a great treat to watch him stand and riff off the improvised finger work of the actors on their wooden and cardboard stylized prop guitars.
The story turns on guitar battles between a mysterious stranger, Marvell Thunder, and several members of the Dupree family. These happen at a crossroads. Blues aficionados will recognize echoes of a myth surrounding the remarkable prowess of Robert Johnson, known as King of the Delta Blues, whose influence on subsequent generations of musicians in this country and abroad was profound.
Playwright Keith Glover and composers Keb' Mo' and Anderson Edwards have crafted a musical that taps the story of the Faustian bargain some say Johnson may have made with the devil. Here, though, the story centers in the Dupree family, which is headed by a thrice-widowed matriarch, her longtime beau (twin brother of her last husband), and her twin twenty-something children, Jaguar Jr. and Glory.
One of the best parts of the Ten Thousand Things production is the choreography, which is by Brian Bose, who also plays Jaguar Junior. It's awful hard to take your eyes off him when he's dancing, but all five members of the company sing powerfully and dance with fervor. Director Marcela Lorca (now also Artistic Director of TTT, following the retirement of founder Michelle Hensley) has a strong background in movement direction, and together these two have crafted a fast-paced, joyous, heart-warming, and funny production.
Two revered stalwarts of Twin Cities Stages anchor the cast, playing the older generation. Greta Oglesby is the matriarch, Good Sister Dupree. Her authenticity and authoritative singing seem effortless but bespeak her deep reserves of talent and performative generosity. As her suitor, T. Mychael Rambo is irresistibly charming, as well as a fine singer and mover. These two have graced many stages opposite each other over the years and the chemistry and comfort they exude centers the show.
Young Brian Bose as Jaguar Jr. is whiplash quick and expressive. He can be petulant and bossy and yet he's still great good fun to watch. He's matched well by Rajané Katurah as Glory, his twin sister, who as the story begins is still at home under the care of her mother following an accident that left her blind. She has the biggest character arc to travel, and revels in it. Ronnie Allen plays the mysterious blue-eyed stranger Marvell Thunder. He's a tall man, and he can traverse the small TTT playing space in a single bound. The least experienced actor in the cast, he's more comfortable singing and dancing than he is managing spoken text. I wager this will improve, in time, as he learns from the directors and actors in this company.
This production of THUNDER KNOCKING AT THE DOOR will have some 16 community based free performances as well as a run of 20 shows for paying audiences at two different Twin Cities locations before closing on April 5. See Ten Thousand Things' website for details. This is fun, accessible, socially conscious musical theater at its best.
Photo credit: Paula Keller