In the middle of a pandemic, there are admittedly many more pressing questions than “How does the show go on?” But if you’re a theater lover, working professional or reviewer, you can’t be blamed for wondering: How can companies continue to present shows? And how does it feel to watch them? Westcoast Black Theatre’s currently available recorded program for its annual April Fools Fête, An Evening with Sheldon Rhoden & Friends, gives us one idea of how.
This fund raiser for WBTT’s educational programs typically takes place live, of course, with a dinner at Michael’s On East and a paddle raise for patrons to donate. With COVID-19 concerns making that impossible, the company offers this program for a cost of $50 per household, starting last night, May 21, and continuing through May 25. I got an early glimpse of it yesterday afternoon.
A five-member cast (Rhoden, Ariel Blue, Jai Shanae, Raleigh Mosely II and Michael Mendez) perform on the WBTT stage, delivering some of the theater’s most popular material—Marvin Gaye: Prince of Soul, originally conceived by artistic director Nate Jacobs, in concert form. Running just a little over an hour (with some PBS pledge-break-like words from management to remind us all of the cause), the show spotlights Rhoden’s portrayal of Gaye and packages 20 of his hits from the 1960s and ’70s, with the actors sometimes on small circular platforms, sometimes moving about the stage, but always at a safe social distance from one another.
Remarkably, the performers still manage to put across the high energy WBTT casts are typically known for, thanks to their own cohesion as an ensemble and also to the choreography of Donald Frison (simplified but always providing movement) and the videography of Bill Wagy and his team, which keeps the program from ever feeling static through varying camera angles and shots and some careful editing. (There are occasional glimpses of empty theater seats, a reminder of just how unusual are the times in which we’re living.)
Frequent WBTT music director Jay Dodge and his musicians also deserve credit for keeping the flow of songs on track and listenable, whether we’re hearing early Motown numbers, duo pairings (as with Blue as Kim Weston and Shanae as Tammi Terrell), or ensemble numbers that give others besides Rhoden a chance to shine. From the early days of “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” through familiar Motown classics like “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” to Gaye’s later, more personal and politically conscious work such as “What’s Going On,” “Mercy, Mercy Me” and the frankly sexual “Let’s Get It On,” Gaye fans will recognize every number, and even at home, alone or with family, may find themselves singing and swaying along.
There are minimal costume changes or production values here, as you’d expect, but for a show of this length and with this purpose, that doesn’t matter. What matters for the singers and actors is a chance to do what they love, and for audiences is the chance to feel, at least a little bit, like they’re spending an evening in the theater.
To watch the virtual program (and to donate to WBTT), you will need an access code, which you can find at westcoastblacktheatre.org.