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'Soul Sounds' is a journey through song

If you fondly remember the soundtrack from "The Big Chill" and think of kids' music these days as "noise," Paul Robeson Theatre's "Soul Sounds" is the production for you.

Fun is key, as the 14-member singing ensemble plus four-piece band take the audience on a merry musical journey. After a quick first act, which swirls through a "Brief, Early History of African-American Music," the ambitious second act treats audiences, in essence, to a 40-plus-song medley from the heart of the soul songbook.

Co-writers Reginald Kelly and Kenneth Johnson have injected some pertinent historical and cultural bits as narrator "Soul Man," Leon S. Copeland, delivers most of these spoken factoids between the cast's numerous exits and entrances.

This entertaining production has a few weak points. The sound quality in the small theater is not great. And while audio on most of the singers works fine, Copeland's microphone seemed to muddy rather than clarify his speech. This created an occasional strain to hear his words, which were surely intended to add interest and educational value to the goings-on.

As "The DJ," Willie Judson Jr. sits in a mocked-up DJ booth to the side of the set and contributes some funny innuendo-laden commentary and physical bits.

Though all talented, the cast's experience widely varies -- from college students and recent grads to stage veterans, the overall energy is infectious. And while dance elements are for the most part simple, during some of the numbers it was obvious that more experience and/or rehearsal was needed. Kenya Hall is the dance pro in the cast, and her early African-inspired piece shows it.

The set, by Harlan Penn, adorned with glittery LPs, conveys a nostalgic feel and works well for the show's whirlwind pace. A center-stage silver mylar fringe curtain is a fittingly glamorous touch. Costumes and hair are uncredited, but the many vintage-style dresses and suits added to the success of the experience.

No plot is necessary, as the music is the stuff of legend. We are offered characterizations of many familiar figures from the '50s, '60s and '70s. Berry Gordy's ascendance as black music's arbiter is front and center, as is the dominance of artists such as Ray Charles, the Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Mary Wells.

This production's faults can mostly be chalked up to overenthusiasm. In addition, some of what might be considered faults may also be interpreted as charm.

It is refreshing to see some of the younger players in the ensemble (Jeremy Williams, John Henry Grant), while not as polished as their elders, reverently deliver classic soul songs. The divas (Annette Christian-Ragin, Sandra Clay and Phobie Davis, among the women) and male standouts (Chalma Warmley and Myles Stubblefield) do themselves more than proud.

In the end, the show becomes, as you might expect, a feel-good singalong. When music is so indelibly a part of life's experience, you really can't help but join in.

Soul Sounds

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

Musical playing through Sunday at Paul Robeson Theatre in the African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave. For information, call 884-2013 or visit www.paulrobesontheatre.com.

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