Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
The first occurs near the end of the first act when Brian L. Boyd gives a lesson in the blues for a man with "Low Down Blues." I would hate to be any performer attempting to follow that. Idella Johnson steps into the spotlight with "Gee, I Wish I Had Someone to Rock Me in the Cradle of Love" and then the arrangements have both singers and their songs become a duet. Another showstopper appears with the finale of the first act, "I'm Just Simply Full of Jazz." In the second act Idella again scores big with "Weary," and Vallea E. Woodbury sings the most plaintive "Memories of You" I have ever heard. Other numbers that pretty much stop the show without quite rising to the level of these those moments include Jai Shanae delivering "Daddy" from a settee, Syreeta S. Banks telling us that "My Handyman Ain't Handy No More", Quinn Q. Cason serenading that ol' "Dixie Moon," and Delores McKenzie telling us "I'm Craving for That Kind of Love."
Eubie! came to Broadway in September of 1978, on the heels of Ain't Misbehavin', which opened in May and had captured the Tony Award for Best Musical. The latter is one of my favorite musicals, but I had never seen Eubie! until now. It doesn't show up as often, possibly because it requires a bigger cast, but, boy, am I now a fan.
WBTT's production, directed by Jim Weaver, now on staff as Education Director and Artistic Associate, shows continued growth for this company, especially in the areas of choreographic and costume historical authenticity. A video sequence showing several important African-American performers that Eubie Blake had crossed paths with (Bill Bojangles Robinson, Bessie Smith, and Josephine Baker), with each being portrayed by a cast member, shows more grasp of the uniqueness of each, and Ty-Gabriel Jones as Robinson is haunting. Individual cast members are recognized above for their strongest solos, but they all come together as an extraordinary ensemble. A four-part vocal arrangement of "Goodnight Angeline" beautifully rendered by Delores McKenzie, Vallea E. Woodbury, Quinn Q. Cason, and Brian L. Boyd serves as the 11 o'clock number, just before the ensemble finale reprise of Eubie's most famous song, "I'm Just Wild About Harry."
Dancing is spirited but much more in touch with the historical periods of the various songs. There are so many spectacular voices in this cast that the superb Syreeta S. Banks is shortchanged. She has shown us before, here at WBTT and at other local theaters, that she is a star of the first order. "My Handyman" and leading "Roll, Jordan" left me wanting to hear more from her, and she is not the only one.
The costumes by Darci Collins as already mentioned are more authentic than what has been seen in the past, as well as more plentiful. The budget appears to have exploded for this production. Adam Spencer's set is shear simplicity: two sets of matched steps with a doorway at the top of each, all in black and white. Director Jim Weaver fills it quite nicely with plenty of color and energy for the 90-minute (plus intermission) show. Regular staff are all back: lighting designer Michael Pasquini; properties designer Annette Breazeale; wig designer Travis McCue; production manager James "Jay" Dodge II; and production stage manager Juanita Munford. I think that these people form a well-oiled machine and contribute very much to each and every WBTT production.
It's almost hard to believe this company has only performed in front of live audiences in makeshift circumstances since March 2020, a couple of shows performed outdoors on the steps to the theater. And the theater is practically still brand new. The 2019-20 season opened with Caroline, or Change, followed by a production of Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, which was given a KO punch by COVID-19. Both were performed in the newly renovated and enhanced space.
It seems that every season-opening musical at WBTT is one of the can't miss productions of the region, and Eubie! is no exception. Sadly, at the opening Sunday matinee I attended, there were far too many empty seats. Maybe it's fear of the virus, although this company has health safety protocols in place, so I felt reasonably safe. Go, go now!
Eubie! runs through November 21, 2021, at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota FL. For tickets and information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.
*=Member of Actors' Equity Association