West Coast Florida
Harry and Lena
Also see Bill's review of Daddy Long Legs
WBTT founder and Artistic Director Nate Jacobs has developed this piece. If it is to have further life I would strongly suggest that he refine the biographic materials used in the show. They are too generic, and these artists deserve better. What is shared about them could apply to almost all of the major black entertainers of their era. The song choices also could be revisited. "Cocoanut Woman," "Island in the Sun," "Jamaica Farewell," "Mama Look a Boo Boo," and "Matilda" immediately summon images of Harry Belafonte. "The Man I Love," "Love" (Love Can be a Dying Ember, Love Can be a Flame), "Summertime," "Stormy Weather" and "The Lady Is a Tramp," all of which were sung by Lena Horne at important moments in her career, are also strongly identified with other singers. In fact, the version of "The Lady Is a Tramp" used in the production incorporates several Sinatra-isms ("won't go to Harlem in Lincoln and Fords, won't dish the dirt with the rest of those broads"). Then there are songs that are not identified with either performer, generic duets such as "People Will Say We're in Love" and "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" (done almost exactly as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded it), "Amazing Grace" (which leads into a gospel medley when neither of them ever sang in that style) and Fats Waller's "Black and Blue."
The real strength of the production is the talent onstage. The idea for this show probably originated as a showcase for company favorite Michael Mendez, recently returned from making the rounds in New York. The role fits him like a glove; he is extremely handsome, as Mr. Belafonte was, and oh, so charismatic. It is hard to believe that I first laid eyes on Michael in the chorus of Love in the Key of Aretha at WBTT in 2011good but not a standout at the time, he has grown and grown. Here he explodes! Lexie DeAnda brings a terrific voice and a vivacious stage manner, but she is unable to convey what it was that made Ms. Horne so beloved. I would love to hear Ms. DeAnda do a whole show, with material of her own choosing, but this one isn't a great fit for her talents.
An ensemble to back up the stars consisting of Victoria Byrd (15-year-old Booker High School student), Candace C. Culcleasure, Sheldon Roden and Joshua Thompson (Sarasota High School student) performs with great verve throughout the two-hour show and is featured in "Tea for Two" and "Black and Blue." The two younger members illustrate one of my favorite aspects of WBTT: Nate Jacobs cultivating talent from the local community, young and sometimes not so young.
Scenic designer John C. Reynolds provides a re-creation of a smart supper club of the era, complete with stairs. This time it is "The Palms of Bradenton." Timothy Beltley has created glamorous outfits for Lena which help us at least see her as the glamour puss that she was, as well as multiple colors of Caribbean shirts like the ones Harry Belafonte actually performed in, except that his were more form fitting. Lighting designer Nick Jones does a fine job and all the other regulars, technical director Shane Streight, stage manager Juanita Munford and house manager Myllanna McKinnon, maintain their usual high standards. James (Jay) Dodge, II leads the band, with Jamar D. Camp on auxiliary keyboard, Keith Phelps Jr. on piano, Todd Bellamy on percussion and Tony Milton on drums. As always, he is a major asset to any WBTT musical outing.
Harry and Lena, presented by Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota, Florida, 366-1505. Through March 23, 2014. For more information, visit www.wbttsrq.org.
Director: Nate Jacobs