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Off Broadway Reviews

A Boy and His Soul

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Colman Domingo
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The best argument yet for a move away from digital music in any format is currently being made in the most unthinkable place: the Vineyard Theatre. That's where Colman Domingo has just opened his high-fidelity solo show, A Boy and His Soul, and is proving with every performance that even after all these years, vinyl is still where it's at.

Domingo, who's best known for playing a series of distinctive supporting roles in last year's Stew-inspired musical, Passing Strange, won't have much trouble convincing you of that, either. He escorts you into his hometown of Philadelphia and his childhood house (from the 1970s and 1980s) at 5212 Chancellor Street with the firm but gentle manner of a kindly, excitable tour guide. And once you're there, listening to the records (yes, actual records) he's sifting through in his parents' basement, his recollections filtered through his auto-EQ voice of unyielding elasticity, his sinewy body, and a smile of otherworldly charm, you won't want to leave anytime soon.

That's the sign of a true star at work. And in this show, as superbly directed by Tony Kelly (the cofounder of Thick Description in San Francisco, where Domingo's play got its start), Domingo pulses with exactly that kind of estimable celestial brightness. Whether playing the deceptively complex character of himself, or any of a dozen or so family and friends he passed on the way to becoming him, he evinces a supple gift for mimicry that invokes without joking or judgment, yet nonetheless manages to cut directly to the comic truth of everyone from drag queens to his typically unfunny parents.

Domingo is hilarious, true, playing himself discovering ballet while James Brown wails in the background. But he's no less raucously observant as "the cousin that you rarely heard of," Siferdean, whose freedom proved an unlikely inspiration to Domingo as he came to terms with his own sexuality. He's warmly moving as his mother, who dispensed life lessons outdoors on warm spring nights. And he finds a gruff, yielding humanity in the stepfather with whom he was never particularly close, but who unexpectedly taught him something unforgettable about love when it looked as though Domingo's mother wouldn't survive a bout with cancer.

All of them have, in Domingo's renditions, remarkable verve that can only be considered - at least in the theatre - a soul. But that's only one definition of that word that Domingo is interested in. The other comes, of course, from his parents LPs. The artists they contain, whether Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and The Commodores, James Brown or Aretha Franklin, or more obscure singers, were vital in laying out the soundtrack of his life, and are woven seamlessly into the soundtrack of Domingo's tales here.

Every milestone, every misstep, every moment of maturation is set against the backdrop of some song, which often melts into dialogue, controls Domingo's memory, or - in the evening's more subtly electric moments - start arguing with each other over the validity of their owner's recollections. Much of the magic of this is due to Tom Morse's flawless sound design, which renders the fabric of the show into one so fluid that it shames most of today's "real" musicals. And Domingo is always at the helm, maintaining a tight grip on the sophisticated ways songs evolve from the action and collapse back into it, whether as obvious as the one-man Earth, Wind & Fire megaconcert that brought Domingo to his musical awareness, or as intimately slinky as when his parents chase each other to the tunes of The Stylistics.

As Domingo pushes and dances (via Ken Roberson's whimsical Friday-night choreography) across Rachel Hauck's homey-disco set, he reveals more and more himself of as a musician and a man, until you finally feel you understand all the various components of this talented and uniquely styled artist. In the last seven minutes or so, once Domingo has completed that process and made himself the master of his music, the show starts to falter a bit, and it doesn't send you out on quite the high it keeps you at for most of an hour and a half.

But that's a minor imperfection - and what LP didn't have some tiny scratch that caused a slight skip that became a cherished listening moment? Throughout the rest of the show, Domingo makes sure you hear everything loud, clear, and totally cool, and that you walk out believing that soul music is just as much a part of the family as he does. You also can't help but feel a close kinship to him when he explains what he learned from his mother: "Keep a song in your heart and you will always find your way." Domingo has obviously taken that as his own life and playwriting philosophy, and created a journey into both his heart and the heart of soul music that you'll stay happily lost in for as long as it lasts.

A Boy and His Soul
Through October 18
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Vineyard Theatre

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