Jazz and blues provide the backbone for Theatre IV's suave and saucy "Blackbirds of Broadway." 

"Blackbirds" Takes Flight

"Blackbirds of Broadway"
Theatre IV's Empire Theatre
Through July 25

Before there was noise and funk, there was jazz and blues. And less than a week after "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk" stomped through Richmond, "Blackbirds of Broadway" sauntered in, oozing with elegance and bursting with style. Where "Noise/Funk" rocked with rhythm, "Blackbirds" swings with soulful blues, and be-bops with jazz. This song-and-dance revue revives the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a time when legends like Lena Horne, Josephine Baker and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson were first gaining fame.

Theatre IV's top-notch production features a lively sextet of musicians backing up seven versatile performers, a uniformly excellent bunch that collaborates to make the evening a head-bobbing, hand-clapping good time.

Guiding us through the show's 26 songs is H. Clent Bowers. A genial, full-figured gentleman, Bowers also lends his hearty voice to numerous Langston Hughes poems that provide the connective tissue between familiar tunes such as "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "Stormy Weather." The poems are occasionally superfluous but often contain stirring images that add dramatic weight to otherwise unconnected songs.

The stand-out in the cast is James Doberman who has been blessed with a rich tenor voice and a remarkably fluid dancing style. His suave, seemingly effortless strutting makes first act numbers like "Papa De Da Da" winners.

But in the second act, he truly gets to cut loose. In his rousing rendition of "Woman," his expressive voice accentuates every syllable of the Duke Ellington classic. Near the show's conclusion, Doberman holds forth with an extended tap dance number, performed in conjunction with the recitation of the poem "Minstrel Man." The poem delivers the closest thing to social commentary that you'll find in the show, and as such, it seems a little out of place. But the piece acts as a fine showcase for Doberman's dancing. With moves that are athletic yet always silky smooth, Doberman demonstrates what Bojangles on steroids might have looked like.

If Doberman wins the dancing honors of the night, Kathi "Katura" Walker takes the singing prize hands-down. Her rollicking "Let the Good Times Roll" gets the joint jumping early on and she brings down the house with the spiritual "Elijah Rock." When Katura goes to vocal war with LaVon Fisher in "St. Louis Blues," you've got to be a dead fish if you don't get chills.

If there is one disappointment in "Blackbirds," it is that few possibilities for theatrical interplay between performers are realized. "My Handy Man," where Fisher and Stacey Sargeant share a saucy tˆte-…-tˆte, should be the rule. Instead, passionate ballads rife with dramatic possibilities — like "I Got it Bad and That Ain't Good" belted out by the tall and gorgeous Rachael Hollingsworth — are delivered straight and static.

But the technical designs for "Blackbirds" are anything but static. Limiting his palette to red, white and black, costume designer Jeff Fender dresses the performers in one dazzling outfit after another. Lighting designer Lynne Hartman projects brilliant images of comedy and tragedy masks and musical notes to punctuate the beginning of the first and second acts.

Though originating at Theatre IV, "Blackbirds" is a cooperative production involving six theater companies. This pooling of resources has resulted in a truly lavish show starring some first-rate talent. Check out "Blackbirds" before it flies

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