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BWW Review: A BOY AND HIS SOUL at Round House Theatre

A virtual production full of great soul...

BWW Review: A BOY AND HIS SOUL at Round House Theatre

This is the 50th anniversary year for Philadelphia International Records, the outfit founded by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff that gave us, among many other things, "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia), the ebullient instrumental by MFSB, given life as the theme of "Soul Train" and used to great effect once more in the Round House Theatre's online production of "A Boy and His Soul."

It's Colman Domingo's award-winning one man show about a man named Jay who returns to his parents house to sort through stuff in the basement before its sale and is stopped cold when he stumbles upon a crate of old records. Each one brings with it a memory and a story. Together, they're a tapestry of not only a life but a whole community.

Stevie Wonder's "Song in the Key of Life" - out of its sleeve and still on the hi-fi -- is the first disc that gives him a jolt. But it's the No. 1 hit by the Philly soul musicians known as MFSB - which stood for Mother Father Sister Brother - that starts the floodgates flowing.

The Round House production, directed by Craig Wallace, is the first major production of the memoir that didn't also star its author. But darned if Ro Boddie doesn't embody not just Domingo's reminiscing character Jay, but also everybody in the family the author created, from a loving single mother who sets Jay on the path of loving soul music, to a supportive stepdad, a tough guy brother who's really a sweetheart, and a tough girl sister (whose theme song is Donna Summers' "Bad Girl"). Plus uncles and aunties and by the end of the piece, Boddie is able to suggest each of what becomes a large cast with a look, a stance, or a tone of voice.

I may be going crazy after a year of pandemic, but this latest selection in Round House's virtual season actually works well online. Presented on a well appointed stage, dressed like a colorfully cluttered basement (designed by Paige Hathaway) with a dusty Christmas tree and lots of old bins, it can become, through lighting (by Harold F. Burgess II) a black void with a pinpoint confessional light, or a glorious Earth,Wind & Fire concert stage.

Sound designer Matthew Nielson does a good job getting the classic tracks on and off. Sometimes, I wish a particularly choice number would play all the way through or that the tunes in question would physically get played on that hi-fi, but that, I realize, would be impossible.

But what a selection of late 70s, early 80s soul - the heyday of the Quiet Storm radio format, when his mother would go woozy at the opening notes of Aretha Franklin's "Daydreaming"; where the Isley Brothers' "For the Love of You" could set an afternoon reeling; where just the mention of groups as lesser known as LTD or Switch (honestly, a new one for me) conjures up vivid memories as well as an album of snapshots.

"Soul music," Jay declares in his reverie, "was a relative."

It was the sound of Black America, but it was also the sound of Black love, Domingo convincingly argues, as his parents dance and sing along to the Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly Wow" - a segment in which Boddie's spoken passages are timed perfectly around the choruses, which he also sings and tries to lead the audience into doing the same.

It's only members of the crew who are allowed into the performance that's well shot by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, but their presence helps too, as they chuckle and react to the monologue along the way.

The script includes less the familiar sounds of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," as it does the surprising liner notes from the album (" "I can't see anything wrong with sex between consenting anybodies") that are worth remembering.

It's not just Black music that's celebrated, though. Tom Jones is worshipped in his weekly TV show for his gritty sex appeal for Jay's mother and aunts; his own admittedly nerdy tastes growing up tended toward the Carpenters.

Still, when his sister takes him to an EWF concert at the Mann Music Center, he begins to be receptive to the depth of soul music. He realizes the messages being put out by Gaye, Franklin, Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield are important ones. But it is another Philly legend, Teddy Pendergrass, who gets the most attention.

The rise of disco, through the playing of "The Hustle," leads to more familiar dance strains (Boddie busts a move in addition to his other talents).

The music stops only when he gets to the part when he recalls coming out to his family. Later, a family reunion and mortality brings out some sentimental songs, that like the earlier tunes, carry with them the memories of specific life turning points.

Of course, "A Boy and His Soul" would work better in a full theater, full of a clapping audience that would sing along to the classics that provide just as personal memories for them as well. But you wouldn't want to wait longer to experience the work, just fine in its online streaming form.

Running time: About one hour, 17 minutes. No intermission, but pause it when you like.

Photo credit: Ro Boddie in "A Boy and His Soul" at Round House Theatre. Photo by Harold F. Burgess II.

"A Boy and HIs Soul" is streaming on demand through April 18 from Round House Theatre. Tickets are

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From This Author Roger Catlin