Review: GRACE at Ford's Theatre

Grace is a mouth-watering dish of family and community served up with super-charged music and vocals.

By: Apr. 01, 2022
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Review: GRACE at Ford's Theatre
The company of the Ford's Theatre production of Grace.
Photo by Andre Chung.

Billed as the "New Musical", the musical Grace is a soulful and heart-filled affirmation of a family hanging on to hope and love as their community changes and as the future propels them onwards. This new musical now playing at Ford's Theatre is also about letting go of the past yet still honoring it while hanging in with grit and endurance. Grace is shot through with musical numbers that grab you by the gut (gloriously eclectic music and lyrics by Nolan Williams, Jr.) and a superb cast of talent that knocks this out of the park vocally and with finely-honed acting chops.

It has been a long time that I have seen a show that so vividly encompassed community and family and its disappointments, fears, and closeness. This propulsive and character -driven story develops as the winds of change blow --fiercely affecting community standards and economic strength-- but the Minton family is a proud family that will fight to survive and to preserve their African -American culture and heritage. The gathering of this loving yet very human family takes place in the patio courtyard of the Minton family restaurant as everyone comes together to remember their beloved Grandmother ("Gran'Me") as they prepare for her memorial service.

Moments of "grace" greet you in surprising ways in this very engaging, dramatic, and alternately warmly humorous musical. The eight characters we see onstage play off each other with ease whether in smaller, more intimate scenes or in the highly interactive ensemble numbers that are so beautifully choreographed by Director Robert Barry Fleming. The dance numbers are integrated to propel this absorbing look at a "slice-of -life" day for this family ---a day that will mirror all the joys and fears encroaching on this committed family. Choreographic swoops of exuberance and rhythmic snapping fingers, swiveling hips, dancing feet, and arms raised in joyous affirmation fill the stage with life-affirming joy.

Director Fleming integrates this lively musical with above par pacing as he utilizes every inch of the Ford's Theatre stage with depth-filled blocking and groupings. Food, as represented by the restaurant-- and food as represented by the recipes and dishes prepared for this memorial (by the characters) is symbolic of spiritual needs as well as hunger pangs. This theme is oft-repeated throughout like a deeply felt mooring point (especially the ensemble number "Good Lawd, Let's Eat", the "Eulogy: When Gran'Me Cooked" and the highly spiritual yet humorous hymn of praise to a chicken wing "The Gospel Bird").

The crowning glory of this musical are the rich variety of songs by Nolan Williams, Jr. that pour out like manna from heaven; these diverse and multi-layered songs by Nolan Williams, Jr. creatively juxtapose the sounds of R& B, soul, jazz, spirituals and classical music and the musical rewards are continually surprising. Versatility is the hallmark here and each musical piece supports the solid book by Mr. Williams and Nikkole Salter. There is a surging drive to Mr. Williams' music, and it is incorporated into exciting solos, ballads, and ensemble numbers. (Though this is a decided book musical, there is a definite hook to turn this into a totally "sung-through" musical akin to opera based on the strength of the music and lyrics). The lyrics are full of bite, sass, yearning, comfort, and a sense of a deep understanding of life's effect on the human condition.

Textured and illuminating orchestrations by Joseph Joubert add luster to the music direction which is also by the multi-talented Mr. Williams. A superb group of musicians led by Conductor Paul Byssainthe, Jr. played with depth and dedication.

Nova Y. Payton's thrilling and spine-tingling vocal tones are on full throttle here. In her role of the owner of the restaurant (Ruthie), Ms. Payton delivers a sensitive and questioning rendition of the song "Reconsider Me" as she searches for validation. Ms. Payton combines vulnerability with soul-searching awareness in the searing showstopping anthem of survival "Again?" The audience rose as one after the completion of this number ---(I have not seen this happen in a book musical in a long while).

Though Ms. Payton was simply marvelous, every member of the ensemble contributed with their own respective strengths.

As the paragon of maternal strength, Virginia Ann Woodruff (Miss Minnie) showed the determined authority of the family's new matriarch. Ms. Woodruff's acting showed her determined side in the assertive "Making Preparations" and "Get it Together". Ms. Woodruff also possesses a beautiful silvery, clear tone when singing and this stood out in the caressing song of growth "Three Okra Seeds".

Arica Jackson as the tough-minded (yet obviously sensitive about her name missing on the family plaque) Haley, was the second showstopper of the evening as she sang the praises of the wonderful chicken wing in the gospel-tinged highlight "The Gospel Bird". Ms. Jackson brought back memories of the great Aretha Franklin in this soul-stirring (and admittedly hilarious) song. This song once again showed the versatility of Mr. Williams' music and lyrics.

Rayshun LaMarr wonderfully portrayed the character of Joshua with the right mixture of charm yet impatience. Mr. LaMarr was often a subtle anchor to the show as he sauntered around the stage space with a casual ease and an understated comic flair. Mr. LaMarr stood out in his acting scenes sparring over his cell phone blasts and questioning constricted social conventions.

Jarran Muse (EJ) as the family member who has moved away only to return infrequently, enacts his character with the correct doses of hurt and abashment mixed with slight manipulation. Mr. Muse has a viscerally magnetic stage presence, and he sang engagingly in the duet "Daddy' Used to Say" with Mr. LaMarr.

David Hughey (Paul) possessed a nice command of the stage and was impressive singing with Ms. Payton in "This New Normal".

Raquel Jennings expertly played the character of Jacqui. Ms. Jennings has an instinctive gift for comic timing and a highly polished yet natural way of retort and a sassy command of the stage that was a pleasure to witness. She shone with Ms. Jackson and Ms. Payton in the three women-led comic and musically playful highlight "A Hard Head Makes a Soft Behind".

Solomon Parker Ⅲ (Lawrence) embodied his character with the right admixture of natural ease and slight callowness. Mr. Parker's banter with Ms. Jennings was hilariously played.

Full ensemble numbers such as "By Grace" and "Good Lawd, Let's Eat" were breathtaking examples of musical theatre at its best and credit must be given to director and choreographer Robert Barry Fleming for continually exciting and well-managed stage movement.

A cascade of riches is on display in this ambitious new musical, and I felt as if I was being caught up in a fever dream of imagery thanks to the highly atmospheric scenic design of Jason Ardizzone-West. The entire height of the stage wall was turned into an historic Philadelphia row house replete with a fire escape, brick walls, screen door, window, and room entrance. The exterior was highly textured to show a sense of living history with renovations and a mural that showed influential and historic African Americans.

Diligence was meticulous as tufts of grass were shown around the bottom of the legs on the table of food on the patio that adjoined the back of the row house. The table for food preparations assumed center stage. Other tables and chairs were scattered about.

Lighting Design by Xavier Pierce is snappy and pitch-perfect for highlighting alternating moods and utilized evocatively with the house lights seemingly opening up ever so slightly for more encompassing fourth wall breaking and dimming to encompass more intimate proceedings.

Costumes by Dominique Fawn Hill are chock full of vibrant colors and hues-strikingly original with mixes of casual and elegantly tailored touches. The stunning and ethereal ending with the cast in white attire for prayerful thanks and a rejoicing respect for the legacy of their loving grandmother is a masterstroke of costume design.

Grace is a mouth-watering dish of family and community served up with super-charged music and vocals. This ambitious musical shows the promise and potential of exploding talent and points the way to the future of the musical. It should be seen by diverse audiences in ever-expanding venues.

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission.

Grace runs from March 19, 2022 through May 14, 2022 at Ford's Theatre located at 511 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20004. For tickets, click here.


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