Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's reviews of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3), The City of Conversation, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Between Riverside and Crazy and The Glass Menagerie and her announcement of the 2015 Helen Hayes Awards Nominations
Jones also directed and choreographed his talented quartet of performers and Knowles conducts four other musicians from the piano. The songs incorporate elements from the spectrum of 20th-century African-American styles, from 1920s blues through gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues, to soul and a light sprinkling of hip hop.
The performers sing and strut on a forthright bandstand set designed by Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan, but Robbie Hayes' projections anchor the songs in historical context. Images of civil rights marches and protests, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John and Robert Kennedy support the "Riot and Rebellion" section, dominated by Lori Williams' heartbreaking "Lay Your Body Down." A section called "Icons" evokes Bessie Smith (subject of Bessie's Blues), Sammy Davis Jr. (fictionalized in Cool Papa's Party), and Frankie Lymon, the teen singer (remembered for "Why Do Fools Fall in Love") who was addicted to heroin by age 15 and dead by 25, embodied by soaring-voiced Anthony Manough.
Other highlights are Roz White's sexy and hilarious "Barely Breathing," Rayshun LaMarr's sleek "SSOS (Sweet Sound of Soul)," and the propulsive ensemble tap number "Sho' Feet Sho' Can Dance." Manough also gets a funny solo, "Blue Basement Wet," as a sweaty man looking for love among uninterested women, and White conveys a different sort of passion in "Psalms."
Alexander Keen's lighting design washes the stage in color, while Janine Sunday has costumed the men in dapper suits and the women in sassy slacks and dresses (including a beaded 1920s-style stunner for Williams).