Need to break up the winter with a soulful, steamy show selection?
It starts, it establishes itself, it continues, and it just keeps on coming—an African American musical roadmap, packed with attitude and seamlessly covering multiple genres and generations.
Shake Loose lands with a swagger at Alexandria’s MetroStage for their winter offering, a show that has an unusual backstory–formed as the brainchild of Associate Artistic Director Thomas W. Jones, a longtime contributor with the theatre who in the last 15 years has produced several original shows, including Helen Hayes Award winners. Along with frequent collaborators William F. Hubbard and William Knowles, they have reached back into their impressive collection of song literature to brought their original work together and create a piece of work that is less recycling, more reimagining.
…a piece of work that is less recycling, more reimagining.
The trio reached back to their own handiwork over the years, each show a slice of the Black experience. They include, Ladies Swing the Blues, Three Sistahs, Harlem Rose, Bessie’s Blues, Cool Papa’s Party and many more, with the last 2 shows receiving several Helen Hayes awards for Music, Direction, and Supporting Actor.
And the planning paid off. What could have been a simple retelling of some treasured music has been shaped to give us a historical unfolding of the social era of the past 60 years, told by the jazz, blues, and rhythm & blues inspired by and reflecting the black musicians and composers of the day. The framework starts with the early southern gospel influences (Migration) to the unrest of the 60s (Riot and Rebellion) on to great African Americans (Icons) and then the Motown personal music experience (After Midnight Moods).
And as the O’Jays would say, the talent assembled is a family reunion. Lori Williams, Roz White, Rayshun Lamarr and Anthony Manough, the foursome interpreting Jones’ work, are all familiar with his work and each other. Manough ambles smoothly onstage, literally setting the stage in “Nothin’ But The Band.” His gentle, piercing upper range was a treat to listen to.
Williams shone in “Rivers Swollen With My Tears” and treated us with sultry tones later in “Lay Your Body Down” using a tremendous gospel wailing that blended upward with the others.
Roz White was a bit underutilized, but showed herself remarkably in “Barely Breathing.” The queen of snarky urban one liners–no one zings as well as her.
LaMarr provided great vocal power and energy and in “Sanctify Me” showed he can get down and dirty with the best of them.
It’s not easy to shine above the assembled talent, but Anthony Manough gave a bravura performance. With sharp facial reactions he constantly connects with the audience. And he is a master in physical movement onstage. Whether playing the slickster Las Vegas character in “Put My Negro On” or his inspired work as a drug addict in “Ain’t No Life” he enthralled the crowd.
Individual talent aside, I was most impressed with the cohesion onstage. In “Sho’ Feet Sho’ Can Dance” the group did a simulated soft shoe, with syncopated drums echoing the beat. All finished spent, lying on stage, undignified, in their nightclub attire, but great nonetheless. Director/Choreographer Jones provided slick movement that was astoundingly tight. Even more impressive on a small stage with steps.
A note on the effective use of video to project images on three screens high behind the performers onstage. Iconic pictures from the ‘40s till present day gave substance and perspective to the eras that was being brought to life in song and dance. The pace was frenetic at times, making it challenging to take in all the themes, but in the end it was the beat that mattered.
The role that the 5 piece orchestra played cannot be overlooked. Onstage throughout, they traversed the 38 song score with verve and thankfully didn’t overshadow the singing. Music Director Knowles also leads the ensemble on piano, with Grant Langford on saxophone, Yusef Chisholm on bass and guitar, Greg Holloway with percussion, and Alvin Trask and DeAndre Schaifer on trumpet.
Get ready for a cool sip of gin at the Cotton Club.
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: Some adult themes.
Shake Loose plays at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St, Alexandria, VA from Jan. 28-March 6, 2016. For tickets to this or other performances in the 2016 season, call the box office at 703 548-9044 or online.