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Songs of the past find new life in 'The B-Side'

There is no better way to experience true musical originality than live and in the flesh.

This inconvenient fact has tortured obsessive music fans for ages. We dream about what it must have been like to watch a young Mozart dazzling members of the Viennese court, to hear Ella Fitzgerald sing at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s, or to be in the audience when The Beatles played "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964.

Though we can't be there, a group of adventurous performers and thinkers has devised a way to bring us closer to the original experience than a recording possibly could.

This remarkably simple experiment is on display in the Wooster Group's production of "The B-Side," an adaptation of University at Buffalo professor Bruce Jackson's 1964 recording of Texas prisoners performing work songs, spirituals and stylized monologues. The three-man show, which earned rave reviews during its run in New York City last year, plays through Sunday in a sold-out run in UB's Center for the Arts.

The Wooster Group's approach, which it has dubbed "a record album interpretation," is simple in concept but remarkably powerful in effect. In this case, it is a lightly guided tour through Jackson's album with three performers singing, speaking and acting along as the record spins on a turntable.

Our tour guide is the New York-based performer Eric Berryman, who became obsessed with Jackson's record after purchasing a used copy of it on vinyl.

'The B-Side' revives a vanished strain of American music

After a brief introduction explaining how the production came about, Berryman sets the needle down on the record and we hear the voices of the men from Unit 1 of Ramsey Farm sing "Raise 'Em Up Higher," a call-and-response work song inmates sang to synchronize the rise and fall of their axes or hammers.

Berryman, joined onstage by Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore, usually assumes the role of lead singer or performer on each of the tracks. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether the audio is coming from the performers or from the record, and this is by design. For context, he occasionally intersperses Jackson's album notes or reads from his oral history "Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues."

The result is that, when the trio sings aching numbers like "Move Along 'Gator" or "Just Like a Tree Planted by the Water," the humanity of original performers is somehow transferred, as is by spiritual possession, to the people in front of you.

Unlike a jukebox musical (say, "Jersey Boys") there is no artifice about what's unfolding onstage. No one is pretending to actually be these men. The performers are here to amplify the original material, but their amplification goes far beyond increasing the decibel level of the material. They amplify Jackson's record emotionally, fashioning a conduit for the material out of their own enthusiasm for it.

Eric Berryman stars in the Wooster Group's production of "The B-Side," a theatrical adaptation of Bruce Jackson's 1965 album of black work songs and spirituals. (Photo by Bruce Jackson)

This sense is helped by Elizabeth LeCompte's set and Robert Wuss' video design, which makes us feel as if we are attending a private listening session in Berryman's Harlem apartment.

The worlds this piece fuses together seem so distant: the prison farms of East Texas, soaked in the violent legacy of slavery; the meditative calm of Berryman's apartment; a basement black-box theater at UB.

For one remarkable hour, they come together in a way that should give hope to music fans longing for a more direct connection to the performers they love. Though only Jackson was in the room when this essential contribution to American music was recorded, this production invites the rest of us to be there, too.

THEATER REVIEW

"The B-Side: Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons, A Record Album Interpretation"

4 stars (out of four)

Runs through Feb. 11 in the University at Buffalo's Center of the Arts in Amherst. The free production is sold out, but those interested in attending are encouraged to show up in case of no-shows. Visit buffalo.edu/cai for more information.

Email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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