Regional Reviews: St. Louis
But the first act is so thrilling and intense and fraught, as happy tribesmen are reduced to miserable chattel, that the second act (though admirable) has trouble measuring up. And even the 70-minute act one comes to seem unusually longpartly because there's no character or conflict or ticking time bomb in the story, just one (genuinely great) ennobling or assertive singing and dancing number after another. It is, in that sense, more ballet or concert piece than play, under the terrific choreography of Mama Lisa Gage and Venezia Manuel. Then there's act two, which is about 65 minutes long, but seems longer, mainly (but not entirely) due to the comparative lack of dramatic structure.
While there's no formal plot, there is an approximate timeline of events in the 300 years of history here, forward to the daring journeys of the Underground Railroad and later the dangers of open protest in the civil rights movement: told through movement and beautiful songs. Thanks to the staging and singing of all of that, it's a very fine show. But, unexpectedly, when Crossin' Over makes its three or four big forays into church and a celebration of the impassioned Christian spirit, it paradoxically seems to drag. When the big satin chorus robes go on, everything somehow grinds to a halt.
Ninety percent of the time, however, it's an emotionally rich and meticulously staged pageant, and the performers are all excellent. J. Samuel Davis, Kelvin Roston, Jr., and Leah Stewart have been in all three productions; and for Herman L. Gordon, it's his second time in the show. Thanks to all concerned, on stage and off, Crossin' Over is a great love letter to the Black Rep audience.
Venezia Manuel makes for an energetic, beautiful and lithe dance muse on stage in act one, as the spirit of tribal Africa; Mr. Davis reveals a splendid voice and remarkable musical acumen, particularly for those viewers who are more familiar with his acting (he was great last year in The Glass Menagerie). Everyone involved exhibits tireless, flawless precision in a very demanding production. There's also a deep philosophical understanding of the spirit and the will to survive, as a group, under frequent and irrational attacks, in every moment.
It's the first time I've heard "Strange Fruit" as a group number (it works quite well this way); the regular hail of bullets that punctuates the 1960s marches is another shared martyrdom for the audience.
Note: On the opening weekend we were saddened to learn of the sudden passing of the show's scenic designer and popular theater artist all over town, Mark Wilson. In May Mr. Wilson served as technical consultant at Upstream Theatre for the very ambitious and successful multi-media work in A Human Being Died That Night. It was one of the final achievements of a long and successful career in theater. In Crossin' Over, his work grows from a simple bridge-like structure, which also serves as the hold of a slave ship; to a riot of banners and projections by the end.
Through June 18, 2017, at the Emerson Theatre on the campus of Harris-Stowe College. For more information visit www.theblackrep.org.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association
** Denotes member, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers