Review: SUPER FREAK: THE RICK JAMES STORY at National Theatre

New production relives the 80s funk star's highs and lows

By: Apr. 03, 2024
Review: SUPER FREAK: THE RICK JAMES STORY at National Theatre
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Somewhere between touring tribute acts and high-gloss Broadway jukebox musical bios are the more modest regional  musicals created to nominally perform the hits of a legacy pop act, in costume, adding biographical details as a story arc.

For the touring “Super Freak: The Rick James Story”  at The National Theatre through Sunday, it’s lucky that so many of James hits were autobiographical enough to help tell the story of the funk rocker from Buffalo, whose career was set back by drugs, excess, record company indifference and jail time.

So much so that his song “Ghetto Life” is a scene setter that stretches out nearly 15 minutes to encompass nearly all his adolescent life. On a set that is largely a two story grid in front of a series of projections, the young James (Kobe Brown) is full of dreams and frustrations that he shares with his mother (Chantelle Moore) as he picks up music, runs away to New York, signs up for the Naval Reserves but flees to Canada when he is called to Vietnam.

In Toronto he meets Neil Young with whom they start a band that’s signed to Motown, and “Big Time” is the soundtrack to their upward projection. He meets a woman in such a  romantic whirlwind, she's pregnant and has the baby before the song “Ebony Eyes” is even over. 

The band’s career almost immediately stalls when James is jailed for having gone AWOL. Once out, a duo act with Greg Reeves fizzles when the latter is chosen to play bass for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Making quick cash as an international drug runner, James suddenly gets inspiration (or something -- it's confusing) in Africa to become the star we know with the 1978 hits “You and I” and “Mary Jane.”

By now, the persona of James that was handled by young Brown is taken over by the braids and leather authenticity of Stokely Williams, onetime lead singer of Mint Condition. With it, the vocals improve immensely along with the swagger of a seasoned performer who is likely as well versed in all of the show biz highs and lows to fully embody the title character.

By act two, he’s not only singing the hits, but he’s taking on the arrogant excesses of the star that's well known from the cartoonish portrayal given him by comedian Dave Chappelle (inadvertently giving the funk star a late career revival).

The ego-bloated James is suddenly demanding raises from Berry Gordy, dissing Diana Ross, and chasing Prince off his stage for copping his moves. And of course, he not only says the phrase Chappelle created for his caricature, “I’m Rick James, Bitch!” the musical closes (spoiler alert) with these immortal words. 

It’s surprising that it’s so frank with his brash personality and crack-smoking decline, especially in a show co-produced by his daughter Ty James (who also was executive producer of the well-done 2021 Showtime documentary “Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James”).

But it also turns into a kind of pop culture skit where stars of the era come in and do their associated hits, with the chorus member portraying Prince more successful than those doing CSNY (a hapless “Helplessly Hoping”).

But these don’t always serve the story. When we’re told that James’  gritty funk is out of fashion, only to be replaced in the charts by the smooth blandness of Lionel Richie, his “All Night Long” gets one of the biggest responses all night from the crowd.

They include, of course, a fully realized version of “Fire and Desire” — a song likely written with this kind of full dramatic presentation in mind, opposite strong-voiced protege Teena Marie (who I’m guessing was played by Eleni Hanson, though she’s listed in the $10 program only as Chorus 14). 

It’s surrounded by other gems from his heights, from “Give It To Me Baby” and “Standing On the Top,” complete with a corps of Temptations dancing along in suits. But there’s only momentary references to other hits like “Bustin’ Out.” 

And when the show’s title song finally fires up, it’s first given a woozy, druggy reading before fully growing to the song that ultimately gave James his first Grammy. But that award came only when MC Hammer stole its beat for his even better-selling “U Can’t Touch This.” For that, a parachute-pants Hammer stand-in keeps appearing like a menacing little career gremlin. 

These pop culture pop-ups — which include Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Ashford and Simpson, a possible Joni Mitchell and Manson-victim Jay Sebring (who apparently invited James over to Polanski’s house the night of the murders) are what keeps “Super Freak” amusing amid the hits, fired up by a five-piece band of musicians in the pit (also off-stage: backing vocals from original Mary Jane Girls member Val Young). 

Considering the career downward spiral, there’s no way to end with much uplift, though the standout Moore attempts to bring some gospel to the conclusion, where “Glow” is sung after he curtain call. 

“Super Freak” is the creation of the furiously self-promoting Je’Caryous Johnson, who broke into black theater circuit turning black romance novels into stage productions featuring at least one name star from Billy Dee Williams to Brian McKnight

The Tyler Perry-wannabe started the tour in his hometown of Houston less than a month ago. And while most stops on the tour that extends to June are one-nighters, Washington has the longest run with six performances in five days, probably because of its long established audience for “urban theater,” whose traditions include DJs coming out to shout “Make some noise!” between acts, and further distances itself from theatrical protocol (and posted lobby warnings) by actually encouraging the audience to take photos and videos if only to promote the show, and turns a blind eye to telltale smoking fired up after “Mary Jane”).

Another aspect of these shows is audience interaction, which led to shouts from the crowd at key moments like “Don’t do it, Rick!” when he’s tempted again by the crack pipe. An alternate audience suggestion — “If you don’t, I will!” — got one of the bigger laughs of the night. 

In this, “Super Freak” is closer to tribute concert or dress-up karaoke than deeper theatrical bio, and the audience, well aware of this, was just as happy for it. 

Running time: Two hours and 50 minutes including a 20 minute intermission. 

Photo credit: Stokely Williams in “Super Freak: The Rick James Story.” Photo by Je’Caryous Entertainment. 

“Super Freak: The Rick James Story” continues through April 7 at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW. Tickets, priced $49.75 to $129.75, are available online


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