There’s a lot of talent onstage in Westcoast Black Theatre Troup’s new production of Broadway in Black—and a lot of songs, too. Maybe too many, especially considering that anyone who’s been to recent WBTT productions of The Color Purple or The Wiz has heard quite a few of these numbers within the past year or so.
But, as artistic director Nate Jacobs said before the curtain opening night, he just couldn’t bear to cut any of the 50 or so songs that help tell the story of black performers, composers and writers over the last century on the Great “White” Way. Maybe you or I could make a few suggestions, but there’s no doubt that just about every song here is well performed by a larger than usual WBTT cast, backed with assured musical direction by LaTerry Butler and some outstanding choreography by Donald Frison, who occasionally takes to the stage himself.
There’s a little bit of narration to help cover the decades from 1921’s Shuffle Along—the first Broadway musical written and directed by African-Americans—to contemporary hits like Dreamgirls, Purlie and Bubbling Brown Sugar. But mainly Broadway in Black is an always on the move show, directed by Jacobs to impressive effect.
There’s not much of a set; there doesn’t need to be, and when there are all 12 cast members onstage at once, decked out in eye-catching costumes by Patricia Gregory and a procession of wigs by Joyce Ward, there’s so much going on visually that too many props would just get in the way. Broadway in Black has an ensemble of mainly dancers—Derric Gobourne Jr., Topaz von Wood, Joshua Thompson and Keenan Carver—helping to flesh out the numbers performed by the strong singers and a band that often sounds bigger than it is.
And there certainly is a wealth of moments to enjoy here, from sassy (“I’m Just Wild About Harry” by Ariel Blue) to soft (“Summertime” by Syreeta Banks) to stylish (“Sophisticated Lady” by a male trio) to sizzling (“Hit Me With a Hot Note” and “Dat’s Love” by Cherise James) to soulful (Ragtime’s “Your Daddy’s Son” by JoAnna Ford, whose abilities range from operatic to jazzy, and “Wheels of A Dream” by Ford and Raleigh Mosely II, one of the production’s most uplifting numbers) to just fun ("How Ya Baby," led by Michael Mendez).
Brian Boyd does a nice Fats Waller bit on “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself A Letter,” and he and several other males in the cast likewise deliver on “Five Guys Named Moe,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry” and the harmonies of “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” There are no weak links in the cast, and they can transition smoothly from spirituals to pop tunes to Broadway belters.
So, I really can’t find anything negative to say about Broadway in Black, except that at two hours and 40 minutes (with intermission) it’s just longer than it really needs to be. For those in the audience who perhaps haven’t seen the show’s numbers for a while, though, that probably won’t be a problem.
Broadway in Black continues through July 23; for tickets call 366-1505 or go to westcoastblacktheatre.org.