TheatreVirginia's era of energy has begun with "Bubbling Brown Sugar," a musical tribute to Harlem's heyday.
When "Bubbling Brown Sugar" opened in 1976 the well-known juggernaut called "A Chorus Line" stole its thunder. The play ran on Broadway for only a short time but was performed on traveling tours throughout the United States and in parts of Europe. Now, after being all but forgotten for 25 years, "Bubbling Brown Sugar" has taken the stage once again at TheatreVirginia. Directed and choreographed by George W. Faison, the Tony Award-winning choreographer of "The Wiz" (and the first African-American to win this coveted award), "Bubbling" is a gem overlooked by Broadway.
If the first play of the season says anything about what new Producing Artistic Director Benny Sato Ambush will bring to TheatreVirginia, it's that a new era of energy is coming to the theater. The play, set as a mystical tour through the musical sights and sounds of Harlem, compresses a big musical and dance review onto a small stage. From the singing to the dancing to Reggie Ray's colorful costume design, the production behind "Bubbling" shows all the glamour and finesse of an old movie with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The songs throughout are a catalog of numbers from the Harlem Renaissance era. Principal among the voices is that of Cheryl Alexander, who plays the role of a famous singer, Irene Page, who still lives in Harlem after the glamour has fled the streets. Alexander's solos, "What Harlem Means to Me" and "I Got It Bad," showcase the strength of a voice that is reminiscent of a '20s-era diva. Rivaling Alexander is Brandi Chavonne Massey who plays a young Irene in several flashbacks and contributes renditions of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "God Bless The Child." The energy that almost every number evokes from the audience is amazing. There is even an opportunity for the audience to join in when James Alexander performs Cab Calloway's classic "Minnie the Moocher."
Faison's choreography is wonderful. While normally I don't particularly care much for dance, I found myself enthralled by the grace of the footwork throughout the play. There is everything from big showcase numbers to vaudeville soft-shoe routines to intricate tap dancing carried out with machinelike precision. Standing out from the rest is a number in which Dustin K.E. Conley and Tarik Winston, playing the role of gangsters, exchange gunfire through soles of their feet. The finale is breathtaking and includes tapping, a chorus line and a medley of "Ain't Got That Swing." The glare and finesse of the production as well as all of Faison's talents are put into this big finish and cannot help but bring the house down.
Only the lack of a story line shows why "A Chorus Line" was able to bump out "Bubbling Brown Sugar" back in 1976. If anything, the play depends not enough on plot and too much on the strength of the songs, only a few of which are original to the play. But most people don't go to a musical for the drama; they go for the music, for the dancing, they go to sing along. So if you want drama, watch "ER." But if you want to tap your feet and clap your hands, go to "Bubbling Brown Sugar" and see how Faison got his thunder back.
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