Nathan Davis’ new opera is a breath of fresh air in the too-often staid or esoteric world of music theatre. Using full orchestra for punctuation, beds of sound and recitative-like accompaniments it’s the jazz ensemble—with Jimmy Owens’ especially-fine contributions on flugelhorn—that lifts this show to the rafters. And with Thomas Douglas holding the many streams of sound together and drawing first-rate sound from his charges in the pit, the instrumental components were in capable, sensitive hands.
On stage, the large cast brought Hall’s (Herbert Perry and Eugene Perry, doubling the role to permit the central character the opportunity to both observe his life and participate in it: wonderful touch) story to life weaving in, out and around Albert Filoni’s efficient set whose flying panels and full-cross bridge gave variety to the eye and extra possibilities for playing the scenes.
Based on James Baldwin’s novel, Davis proved he had more in common with the author than stints in Paris. The two acts are laid out with understated simplicity but overflow with life: choreographer Staycee Walters’ dance numbers are invigorating, the “Trumpets of Zion” gospel quartet suave and refined, while the chorus—Greek-like in their congregational observation then commentaries—filled the hall with straight-ahead four-part truth. Hallelujah!
All of these disparate elements have been fashioned into a whole that manages to present the horrors of murder, incest and hate with remarkable discretion in the Hitchcock manner of letting the mind fill in the gory details. Under Jonathan Eaton’s direction, Peanut’s (Albert Lee) murder by Klansmen fades to black; Julia’s (Denise Sheffey Powell whose steady soprano was a constant delight) rape by her father (Philip Lima) eerily symbolized by just the lifting of her skirt made their points without alienating the audience or diminishing the terrible acts. Would that other productions fare as well (cross-reference below).
The love between Arthur (Phumzile Sojola) and Jimmy (Darryl Taylor) was also presented with respect and care. Both Sojola and Taylor have amazing vocal dexterity—their falsetto contributions were magnificent—but as actors they also excelled in the caring manner in which they held each other on the bridge, over the heads of all, where they lovingly used their hands to describe their deep affection (cross-reference below).
Hall’s two young children serve as the embodiment of everyone’s hope for a better future and the emotional glue that, finally, holds his family together. Seth Grier as Tony lit up the stage with every entrance. His engaging smile and wide eyes betraying his “I just can’t wait” to dance and sing (both of which he does well) attitude spread like wildfire to those around him, marvellously capturing Baldwin’s optimism. Brittany Monroe as his younger sister Odessa, fares less well vocally, but managed to keep up with her energetic sibling step for step.
This enthusiastic ensemble (cast and crew) has managed to capture the tenor and tone of one of our finest writers, making it a pleasure to be in the room with the extended family—warts and all.
New works always take a couple of productions to iron out the bugs, adjust or tighten the material. Viewed as a whole, perhaps more jazz less orchestral background would catapult Just Over My Head into the realm of greatness. JWR