Friday, November 4, 2011

Theater reviews: For the Love of Harlem and Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure

Posted By on Fri, Nov 4, 2011 at 5:33 PM

While the arts were poppin’ all over the Center City last weekend, Sue and I contented ourselves with the new CPCC Theatre production of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure over at Halton Theatre. Then with Sue safely escaped to Greensboro the following afternoon, I ventured boldly into the Uptown among the freeloaders — oops, I meant the arts lovers — to see a matinee performance of On Q’s new For the Love of Harlem at Spirit Square while it was still in previews.

You will witness outstanding performances at both places if you follow in my footsteps this weekend, with or without your magnifying glass. I only wish the authors of the two scripts, Steven Dietz for the Arthur Conan Doyle adaptation and our own Jermaine Nakia Lee for original musical, had not been so eager to poach on each other’s customary domains. Dietz’s Adventure is a tad too action-packed and visceral, while Lee’s Harlem is far too cerebral.

That’s largely because we’re instantly spoiled by the huge dazzling splash of the opening number, Lee’s title piece. All hands — and feet — are on deck, coming at us in waves of ensemble singing and dancing, fueled by a hot sextet led by trombonist/arranger Tyrone Jefferson. We gladly dole out additional credit to Jefferson for his musical direction as the vocal soloists vie with the solo instrumentalists up in the balcony of the reconfigured Duke Energy Theatre, but the crowning touches here are from the dancers choreographed by La’Tanya Johnson. The overall impact, stage directed by Sidney Horton, aspires to nothing less than the exhausting, anthemic splendor of “42nd Street.” And it resoundingly succeeds.


A tough act to follow as Lee continues his homage to the Harlem Renaissance. We adjourn to the chambers of novelist/critic/editor Wallace Thurman, where we meet Richard Bruce Nugent, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Bruce, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. These literary and visual artists sing about themselves as the “Niggerati,” a term coined by Hurston in response to the scorn directed at their clique by a white Gotham critic. It’s another showstopping number, on a smaller scale than “Love of Harlem,” and there’s also a promise that we’ll be steered back in a jazzy direction when we behold the great Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, slumped on a chair in a drunken stupor, though she’s scheduled to perform that night.

Lee would have done well to pay heed to Arthur Laurents’ book for West Side Story, where every excuse to break into dance is embraced — even if it means choreographing street fights or setting up a war council between two gangs during a high school hop. We do follow Bessie to the club, but her big scene is in her dressing room as she and blues great Alberta Hunter bicker about the advisability of keeping their homoerotic liaisons hush-hush. A delightfully soused intro to Smith’s signature “Tain’t Nobody’s Business” spices up her brief scene behind the mic, but nobody kicks up their heels on the dance floor.

Instead we find ourselves in the salon of arts patroness A’Lelia Walker as Nugent’s paintings go on exhibit. Or back to Niggerati HQ for Countee Cullen to continue wooing Langston Hughes. Or Hunter’s apartment, where Alberta repulses the ambitions of her lover, Lottie Tyler. Other curable maladies in the script include detours into academic symposium prose when the Renaissance notables expound their manifestos and Lee’s tendency to write his scenes so that they look like mere set-ups for his songs.

Lee also indulged his predilection toward writing soul ballads two or three more times than necessary instead of trying to pen more blues cookers like Alberta Hunter’s “This Worried Song” — or the Ellingtonia played by the sextet during scene changes. Closing Act 1 with “What’s Wrong?” and opening Act 2 with “To Thine Own Self Be True,” Lee has not only slowed the action and the music to a virtual standstill, he has strayed from sounds that feel right for the Jazz Age.

But my, my, my — how this exemplary cast delivers on the score they’re given! Sheretta Ivey torches the title tune before she settles into the role of Zora Neale Hurston to do more of the same on “There’s Always Something,” and Sharlatta Marlin is pure cussedness as Bessie Smith. After sharing the lead vocal with Ivey on “Love of Harlem,” Tony Massey wrings all the goodness out of “To Thine Own Self” as Nugent, and Tim Bradley proves to be a fairly sensational vocalist as Thurman with “Stimulation” and “Niggerati in You.”

I’d estimate that Leshae Stukes ventures a full octave above her useful range in the hilarious “Dark Tower,” delivered with appropriately towering confidence. The troubled gays are equally impeccable if not as funny, Briana Smith and Ruby Edwards as Alberta Hunter and Lottie Tyler, Marchand Dekarlos and Justin Moore as Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Rounding out the cast, Vincent Robinson turns Aaron Douglas into a Bohemian scamp, duetting effectively with Ivey on “There’s Always Something.”

Lee ramps up his heavy artillery at the end. After the sizzling Ivey goes visionary on us in “On the Other Side,” a doo-wop dirge for Thurman, the whole ensemble re-gathers for “Unusual Love,” the best of Lee’s soul pieces, with one last marvelous chart from Jefferson. By this time, we know that we’ll be getting more than searing solos, righteous backup, and another dousing of Johnson’s choreography. After his showstopping exploits in “Love of Harlem” and at A’Lelia’s soiree, tap dancing prodigy Roderick Phifer-Pitts must come out for one last devastating cameo.

Aided by the resources of 1510 Antiques, Quentin Talley’s set design markedly raises his company’s standards, but you may be even more dazzled by Davita Galloway’s costuming. Warts and all, For the Love of Harlem outclassed many of the shows I saw at the National Black Theatre Festival back in August. It would make a fine first impression for Charlotte when NBTF returns to Winston-Salem in 2013.

Nearly five years to do the day after I’d seen them in the lead roles of Amadeus, Hank West and Tom Scott were back at panoramic Pease Auditorium, discarding their former Mozart-Salieri animosity in favor of a new Holmes-Watson intimacy. Steven Dietz’s Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure is based on the 1899 original by William Gillette and Sir Arthur, bringing two intertwining plots and a full cargo of Holmesian idiosyncrasies — his violin playing and his cocaine vice, quirky weapons for combatting his fin de siècle ennui.

Everyone onstage and on the design team has an obvious zest for the material, and Tom Hollis directs with a gusto we don’t often see in a CPCC drama. Perhaps the cast accounts for Hollis’s enthusiasm, for he has the saturnine Philip Robertson as Professor Moriarty, Holmes’s fiendish arch-enemy, and the wondrous Jim Greenwood as Sid Prince, the prof’s ablest confederate. Seriously, this is the best of the best from Greenwood, particularly that accent.

Nobody less than the King of Bohemia knocks on Holmes’s door as the detective and his sidekick are about to embark on a search for Moriarty. The evil mastermind is no less intent upon exterminating Sherlock — so as you may have deduced, he has insinuated himself into the King’s difficulties. His Majesty wishes to wed, but a former paramour, Miss Irene Adler, is in possession of a photo that will bring disgrace to the King and his kingdom. Neatly tying things together, Irene is the great opera singer whose voice we hear on Holmes’s phonograph when we first view the sleuth in his study, the object of Holmes’s veneration.

Each act climaxes with a perilous face-to-face confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty, who has specially kidnapped Irene and her precious photo for both occasions. It’s here that Hollis spurs the pacing to a frothy gallop that leads to a little more confusion than excitement, partially because the action Conan Doyle has decreed crosses over into improbable absurdity. For example, why would Holmes, holding the predacious Moriarty at gunpoint and disarming him, put his own gun down on the table next to the Professor’s?

More delightful are the deductive brilliancies that Sherlock delivers, beginning by telling Dr. Watson that his wife must be away from home. West delivers all this with a crisp hauteur he maintains all evening long, and I’m sure he will become more comfortable with the pacing as the show moves into its second weekend. I hunger for more of Sherlock’s famously “elementary” deductions, particularly late in Act 1, when he homes in on the precious photo that Moriarty and his confederates have spent long hours futilely searching for. How did Holmes deduce its location? I’d love to hear West explain that with his newfound sangfroid.

Scott finds the perfect path in combining Watson’s bumbling astonishment at Holmes’s genius with the Dr.’s absolute dependability in carrying out the detective’s detailed instructions. Likewise, Glynis Robbins measures out the right ambiguities for Irene — how vengeful she feels towards the king and how available she might be to Holmes. Though a GPS might be helpful in locating his accent, David Cruse has an imposing presence as the King of Bohemia. And the crying need for people who are stupid — or at least not as smart as they think — is met by Brian Holloway and Kristin Mauro as the good folk dispatched by Moriarty to kidnap Irene.

A final adventure for Sherlock Holmes? I’d hate to spoil the suspense for you. Or the fun.

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