BWW Review: WHY WE TELL THE STORY: A Celebration of African-American Musical Theatre at the Stratford Festival
As I took my seat in the lobby of Stratford's Festival Theatre on Monday night, the eager patron next to me leaned in and proclaimed "There is quite the buzz in here!" She was absolutely right. We had both arrived early enough to grab seats for WHY WE TELL THE STORY: A CELEBRATION OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATRE--A much anticipated cabaret event conceived by Festival actor Marcus Nance who can currently be seen in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and BILLY ELLIOT. After initially selling out months before the Festival season even began, the high demand of this show led to more chairs being added and eventually to 'standing room only' tickets being sold so that as many people as possible could witness what indeed turned out to be a magical night of words and song.
Gathered on stage was a group of performers who were an immediate reminder of how spoiled we Stratford residents are. To have such high quality talent in our own backyard and to see these performers sink their teeth into music that they are clearly passionate about, is nothing short of a privilege. Joining Nance on stage were Alexis Gordon, who is currently starring in the Shaw Festival's BRIGADOON; Vanessa Sears, who made her Stratford debut this year in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and BILLY ELLIOT, and Festival Favourite, Robert Markus who was last seen in the titular role of Mirvish's DEAR EVAN HANSEN in Toronto. Along with Music Director Franklin Brasz on Piano, Dave Campion on drums, and Michael McClennan on bass, these performers had the packed lobby roaring with applause on many occasions throughout the night.
This review of African-American musical theatre explored 90 years of rich music; from 1927's SHOWBOAT to 2016's HAMILTON. The choices were thoughtful and moving and the use of powerful quotations from the likes of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou was a beautiful touch.
The best kind of concert is one where you hear the tunes you go in hoping to hear, you hear some surprises that you never even considered, and then you also get to discover some music that you have never heard before. That is exactly what this night provided. With BILLY ELLIOT currently on the Stratford Festival playbill, I wondered if we might hear some AIDA tonight and was ecstatic to hear Robert Markus and Vanessa Sears (reuniting after last starring together in Theatre Aquarius's JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT) perform a thrilling rendition of Elaborate Lives. Meanwhile, Nance and Gordon brought the house down with RAGTIME'S Wheels of a Dream. Side Note: This is the third time I have seen these two artists perform this number together and I have been brought to tears each time.
Given that the title of this show comes from ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, I fully expected that audiences would be treated to a song or two from that fabulous show. What I did not expect (but in hindsight clearly needed in my life) was Robert Markus singing Mama Will Provide. Other highlights include Alexis Gordon putting her massive talent on display with Dat's Love from CARMEN JONES; Vanessa Sears bringing the laughs with The Oldest Profession from THE LIFE and then ripping our collective hearts out with I'm Here from THE COLOR PURPLE; and Marcus Nance stopping time with an utterly enthralling performance of SHOWBOAT'S Ol' Man River.Throughout the show, a performer would answer the question of "Why we tell the story" with a theme--Love, Family, Hope, etc. and the music that followed would explore those themes further. The richness and diversity-but also, at times, the specificity in the music selected speaks to the power of these themes from the lens of the African American experience. Shows like RAGTIME, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, SHOWBOAT, and PORGY AND BESS are examples of some of the best musical theatre ever written. The characters in these shows represent real people with real pain and real dreams, and the music tells the story just as well as any other medium possibly could.
All I can say is that the stories these musicals are telling need to be told more. Our current social and political climate is evidence of that. If tonight's wonderful concert proved anything, it's that it is well past time for one or more of these shows to grace the Festival Theatre stage. For now though, I think it is fair to say that everyone in the audience is grateful that they got to bear witness to a truly magnificent evening of powerful music. Bravo Marcus Nance. It was a night that will not be forgotten any time soon!