BWW Review: Iconic Music and Powerhouse Artists put Stevie Wonder and Prince Center Stage in UNCOVERED
When it comes to covering popular music, navigating the space between individual interpretation while still respecting the original artist's work could be a daunting task. And when the artists whose music is being covered are household names and legends in every way, there's also the need to ensure their fans appreciate the changes made in the reimagining.
That's why The Musical Stage Company's UNCOVERED: Stevie Wonder AND PRINCE is so impressive. The latest addition to the series, now in it's thirteenth year, examines the greatest works of both Stevie Wonder and Prince. Returning with the series is Reza Jacobs, the veritable heart and soul of the concert series, whose music direction, vocal arrangements, and orchestrations transform the original works in ways that are both unexpected and obvious - once you hear them.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the roster of performers is stacked - when you have Canadian icons like Jackie Richardson and Jully Black onstage with both up-and-coming and renowned artists, it's practically guaranteed that the production is going to be special. Richardson's warm, soulful voice makes a slowed-down "For Once In My Life" a true ballad, and her "Purple Rain" is a showstopper and perfect tribute to Prince. Black performs a ballad from each musician, which is a wise choice given the depth and gorgeous tone of voice she's got. Black's also got a unique talent for holding back tons of power until the right moment and then letting loose - which works to amazing effect.
For audiences wanting to hear performances that stay faithful to the source material, look no further than Colin Asuncion's "Superstition." His voice has the soul Wonder has, and his ability to riff throughout the piece brings energy to relatively stationary performance - in fact, if you let go to imagination, you might think that a young Wonder was up there instead. Divine Brown does "Kiss" in two ways - sweet and saucy - and remains in great form while adding a percussive dance piece in the middle.
While most of UNCOVERED features solo performances, perhaps the most experimental and engaging takes come when its artists team up. Prince's "Raspberry Beret" gets a folk-style reimagining through Cary Shields, whose subtle country sound works perfectly against acoustic backing from Jamie Drake (percussion), Erika Nielsen (cellos) and Justin Gray (basses). The iconic 80s dancefloor bop "When Doves Cry" gets a stripped down, haunting rendition performed in trio by Brown, Aimee Bessada, and Lydia Persaud that will leave you wanting a recording to take home and meditate on.
The beauty of Prince and Wonder's songs can't be denied when heard as Jacobs has arranged them here. Removing the polish of a studio album, reducing the number of instruments, and keeping the stage set simply forces listeners to take in every word sung, and I was surprised to really hear the meaning and depth of songs that have been played at home by my parents since I was a kid. The only number that doesn't really work is the slowed down, sad approach to "Manic Monday." Although it's beautifully sung by Thom Allison, the mood just doesn't fit the song's poppy, silly lyrics.
It wouldn't be fair, though, to only hear the music and not the stories of the artists who wrote it - which is why the presence of Stevie Wonder (Sarah Afful) and Prince (Chy Ryan Spain) in armchairs on opposite sides of the stage is so welcome. Afful nails Wonder in her tone, laughter, and movements, and Spain provides an upfront and honest Prince. There's something about Spain's quiet nature and subtle movement that screams Prince, and they honour the late artist in a way that's heartwarming and tear-jerking, especially when both actors come together for a touching reflection on the real Wonder and Prince's final interaction.
The 2019 edition of UNCOVERED is a true testament to the talent of the singers and musicians onstage, and makes a solid case - not that it needs to - of Wonder and Prince's song writing capabilities and sheer talent. It's rare to get a collection of artists like this together on stage, but it proves that when they do - just as when Wonder and Prince, who were long-time friends - might have done, magic happens.
The Musical Stage Company's UNCOVERED: Stevie Wonder AND PRINCE runs through November 7 at Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St W, Toronto, ON and November 8-9 at Meridian Arts Centre, 5040 Yonge St, North York, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://musicalstagecompany.com/production/uncovered2019/
Photo credit: Joanna Akyol