Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Review: Sam Cooke—Where You Been Baby?

The following is a guest post from Brian Petti, a local playwright and actor. Enjoy!

A Hot Night in Rosendale

ROSENDALE, NY--By the end of Michael Monasterial's one-act musical drama Sam Cooke—Where You Been Baby?, the audience was up on its feet and “Twistin' the Night Away” to a wailing sax and an exhorting vocalist. It was theater as church revival—a punctuation to the career of a preacher's son turned R&B legend.

But oh, what a winding road to get there.

This past Saturday, Passing the Torch Through the Arts offered Sam Cooke, directed by Gordon W. Brown and a 30 minute excerpt from The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, directed by Ron Morehead at Rosendale Theatre. An unlikely pairing, but one held together by fine acting throughout.

Monasterial starred as Cooke, with a cadre of Candi Sterling, Steven Jones and Evelyn Clarke playing a multitude of roles. The play begins with Cooke's death at the hands of a manager of a seedy Hollywood hotel and works its way back to Cooke's humble beginnings as a minister's son, sneaking out of Church choir to dream of a more exciting life. Cooke's platitude spouting grandmother (Evelyn Clarke) joins him and the audience for the narrative ride, acting as his conscience in an apron. Along the way Cooke comes up against his father's judgment, an ill-fated marriage to his childhood sweetheart and the threat of Motown Records, the closest thing there was to mafia to aspiring black artists in the early sixties. He also faces his own destructive behavior.

But there is also success, mostly in the form of performances of Cooke's hits by Monasterial. In the music seemed to be all the joy of the man, and Monasterial captures that essence well. In well-choreographed numbers by Abby Lappen, he performs “You Send Me”, “Chain Gang”, “Wonderful World” and a host of others with a showman's flair. Monasterial's portrait of the man is sympathetic. Cooke comes across as a well-meaning, somewhat innocent dreamer. His grandmother's line, “By the time you know what this world is about, you'll wish you didn't” seems apt. There is another side to this man that is grazed upon in his dealings with Berry Gordy of Motown—Monasterial shows a man in full, capable and strong and willing to defend himself. But even when he abashedly explains his scandalous murder to his Nanna in a touching scene, you see the results of his demons and not the demons themselves.

Evelyn Clarke as Nanna was a crowd favorite as the voice of experience in Cooke's life. Her touching mixture of tenderness and rebuke fit the part wonderfully and gave the play most of its soul. Candi Sterling, playing everything from Cooke's wife to his prostitute, ably fit every character she tackled. Her portrayal of the wife's arc, from wide-eyed country girlfriend to scared, wounded spouse was particularly riveting. Dennis Washington added his wonderful voice to the proceedings, leading the choir as a gospel counterpoint to Cooke's pop songs. Bruce Berky added that great sax and handled sound, while Clarke and Esther Taylor-Evans shared a co-writing credit.

Some of the show's best acting was provided by Stephen Jones. As Cooke's unforgiving father he had the gravity of a man bent on pointing his son toward the straight and narrow, as Gordy he was all smiling malevolence, and as a gushing teenage fan dancing along to Cooke's music he almost stole the show. Whatever Jones portrayed, he committed to it and pulled it off with dignity.

Gordon W. Brown's direction of the show was tight, moving the action along nicely and revealing character along the way. One bit, where Cooke's then-girlfriend grabs money out of his hand before accepting his proposal, got a round of applause from the audience—that's about as effective as direction gets! Monasterial wrote Cooke talking directly to the audience to set up scenes, which is less effective, since many of the scenes would stand on their own without introduction. There was also a looseness to the performance that in its best moments led to a direct connection with the audience, and at its worst indicated that another week of rehearsal was warranted. Some of the key moments in the play just miss because of this lack of precision. However, on the whole the play comes across as both heartfelt tribute and cautionary tale, and there was no denying how much the audience enjoyed it.

The Vagina Monologues, staged simply with three actresses sitting in chairs facing the audience, was a wonderful blend of terrific acting and subtle direction by Ron Morehead. Johanna Tacadena, Dana Lockhart and Laurie Dichiara each performed one of the monologues, and their passion and talent was beautiful balanced. Tacadena's sweet, soulful performance of an inexperienced woman was offset by Dichiara's venerable, yet wounded portrayal of an older lady whose time has passed. Lockhart strikes the chord in her direct, no-nonsense brush with a sexist, controlling husband in “Hair”. This show will be reprised at Arts Society of Kingston in June, and if the sneak peek is any indication it should not be missed.

Brian Petti 5/25/10

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