Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Ain't Misbehavin'
In December 2011-January 2012 WBTT ran a show with the same title as this one. For this transitional season, Artistic Director Nate Jacobs brought back revivals of two shows, and Love in the Key of Aretha is the second, but version one and version two have little in common except the title and castmembers Michael Mendez, then billed as "Mikey," and Teresa Stanley. The first version had a storyline involving a community of women and children drawing strength from each other. The Aretha Franklin songs served to illuminate the emotional situations they each faced.
Version two is a cleaner tribute to the Queen of Soul who left us last summer. Four powerhouse, no longer young singers form the nucleus, singing together and breaking out for solos. A young couple makes an appearance in each of the acts to show that Ms. Franklin's appeal transcended generations. The song list is wider, covering some Aretha wrote and many more that she was associated with via recordings, including several that really belong primarily to others, such as "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "I Say a Little Prayer," and "Son of a Preacher Man." Nate Jacobs confines himself to offering only small amounts of Ms. Franklin's personal history, letting the music speak for her.
Teresa Stanley plays Carolyn, Micresha Myatt plays Erma, Syreeta Banks plays Louise, and Jennifer Massey plays Barbara. Though they play named characters, the characters never develop individual personalities. Ms. Stanley blows the roof off with "Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)" and solos on "Chain of Fools" and "People Get Ready." Ms. Myatt solos on "Natural Woman," "Son of a Preacher Man," and "Ain't No Way." Ms. Banks is featured in "Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee," "The House That Jack Built," and "Don't Play That Song For Me." Ms. Massey has a beautiful voice but she doesn't live her solos on "Brand New to Me" and "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" in quite the same way the other three do.
Jai Shanae as Destiny and Michael Mendez as Darin make an adorable young couple, in the throes of first love. The are charming on "Since I Met You Baby," "You and Me" and "Baby I Love You." Robert Richards Jr. offers a cameo as Aretha's preacher father and Erma's old boyfriend Theophilus.
This Love Sung in the Key of Aretha is more focused than the earlier version. In the interim, Mr. Jacobs has learned that less is more, text-wise, in his musical revues. The audience can absorb only so much information in what is basically a musical setting and in some instances, like Broadway in Black, there was information served up that was incorrect. This balance of text and music is a good one. Mr. Jacobs directs his cast well, and choreography is by Donald Frison, though with the exception of the young couple, there is less dancing than in previous productions at this theater, perhaps because Aretha Franklin's music is not about dancing, per se. James E. "Jay Dodge II is the musical director and a major reason the music sounds so fine.
All of this is played out on a beautiful set, designed by Michael Newton-Brown. Costume design by Angela Franklin-Mayo, assisted by Adrienne Pitts, is vivid, almost-matching dresses for the ladies in act one, African designs with head pieces for the beginning of act two, and then for the later part of act two another round of finery. The costumes call to mind how Ms. Franklin dressed herself throughout her career. Nick Jones lights everything colorfully, and wig designs are by Travis McCue. WBTT regulars Juanita Munford (stage manager), Annette Breazeale (properties designer), and Jay Dodge (Production Manager) are in their regular places, ensuring the high quality audiences have come to expect from this company.
Love Sung in the Key of Aretha is a fitting tribute to a legendary artist. No one could hope to capture her once in a lifetime voice, but WBTT gives audiences an idea of how and why she was indelible.
Love Sung in the Key of Aretha, through April 28, 2019, at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota FL. For more information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.