Review: NORTH: THE MUSICAL at Chandler Center for the Arts

Performed February 23 and 24, 2024 at Chandler Center for the Arts

By: Feb. 26, 2024
Review: NORTH: THE MUSICAL at Chandler Center for the Arts
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Arizona’s Chandler Center for the Arts brings us “NORTH: THE MUSICAL” – a riveting story of the Underground Railroad and the human spirit. The Center’s General Manager Michelle Mac Lennan welcomed us to this amazing show on CCA’s Steena Murray main stage.

Written and directed by the multi-talented vocalist, Ashli St. Armant, this performance is produced by Sarah McCarthy with creative producer Isaiah Johnson. Assistant director Matthew Ryan and stage manager Juliet Parker, along with cast members, adeptly make scene and prop changes on the austere stage. The simple and time-period formal costumes were designed by Jojo Siu and move well with the choreography of Monik Jones.

On a national tour, “NORTH: THE MUSICAL” was commissioned by Chandler Center for the Arts, along with three other centers in the U.S:  the Lied Center of Lawrence, Kansas; Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California; and the immense Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio. The soundtrack is Ashli St. Armant's jam! Ashli’s band, Jazzy Ash and Leaping Lizards, did not simply lay some tracks: the music is a one-session jam of multi-layered soul. The music was so good I could’ve sworn there was a live band backstage. Side note: Ashli St. Armant is also a best-selling author.

As Ms. Armant writes: “The play is not about slavery.” It begins in a bayou near a plantation. The roots of fear run as deep as the ancient oaks standing as witnesses. The symbolic moss-draped oak canopies, hiding all manner of evil from which joy can also escape, set the stage throughout. The minimalist props and costumes encourage even deeper thoughts and emotions to arise. That is the point of theatre: think, feel, emote, and converse. Everyone should see this show. The last Friday of Black History Month showcased the efforts and talents of keen actors, dancers, and singers. My only wish is that the show ran all month – maybe next year. Or on or off Broadway – maybe soon. Check online for show dates near you.

We travel with the cast in their subterfuge on a terrifying, life-or-death journey, risking it all for freedom. The route is not direct, and neither is the story. Our story begins with young Lawrence (“Law”), played by the amazing Don Cameron on his first national tour, reliving the tale of his best friend Thomas’s encounter with an alligator. Law and Thomas’s mothers, Althea and Minnie, played respectively and wonderfully by Rayevin Johnson and Alyssa Holmes, are close friends working Mr. Newsome’s plantation.

So the ruse begins…and the plot thickens. Mothers will talk. They will raise their children together - until they don’t. Hard times call for hard decisions. Mr. Newsome decides he will sell Law. He and a more successful plantation owner negotiate the price. Law and his mother know they are priceless. They decide they will leave.

The ‘train conductor,’ if you will, is Mr. Wetherby a/k/a Mr. Freeman, played by Tyler Marshall. Mr. Marshall also has other names and other roles in the story, each robustly played. Rounding out the cast as humans and other bayou dwellers are other talented performers: Mell-Vonti as Tham, with ensemble actors Danquai Draughon and Reyna Papotto, who also plays Genevieve LeGrange of New Orleans. Genevieve is a free woman who teaches the proper demeanor and language of free Blacks to the shy Minnie. Minnie and Law need freedom and traveling papers. With fake papers, they will also need proper posture and refined behavior. Ms. Papotto’s physical comedy and other understated comedic lines break the tension.

By forest, river, roadway, coach, and ship, Law and Minnie head NORTH towards Philadelphia…sort of. You will have to see this show while imagining a pre-civil war map. Authentic sounds of cicadas, frogs, and authentic New Orleans pre-jazz-age jazz, along with other music including soulful minor-key ballads and West African rhythms, accompany them on their journey.

This story is timeless as well as elegant. Subtle changes in lighting and sound enhance the mostly barren stage. The Chandler Center is acoustically superb, and even the house lights are restrained. The total effect encourages focus on the words, music, and mannerisms of the actors. Their story, shared with us. The creative use of simple props to tell an elaborate tale is a wonderful juxtaposition. In Act One, Lawrence has the hopeful exuberance and daring of youth, while Minnie is a reluctant traveler. Act Two brings a shift: Law is less hopeful, while his mother becomes more determined. Act Two seemed short compared to Act One, but the change is seamless.

After the show, we lucky audience members got to know more about the creator and performers. The cast and crew graciously answered our questions and told us about their future performances. Go, and see: you will appreciate the breadth and depth of this extraordinary performance.


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