Strong Singing Lifts DTC's World Premiere Stagger Lee

J. Bernard Calloway (in the title role), Cedric Neal and Tiffany Mann span a century of history in Stagger Lee at DTC.
J. Bernard Calloway (in the title role), Cedric Neal and Tiffany Mann span a century of history in Stagger Lee at DTC.
Karen Almond

After five years of development, with workshops here and in New York City, Will Power's musical Stagger Lee finally has its world premiere at Dallas Theater Center. With all that time and effort behind it, Power, who is DTC's Mellon Foundation-funded playwright-in-residence and the Meadows Prize resident writer at SMU's Meadows School of the Arts, says his show is still a work-in-progress.

That's evident from the production running at the Wyly Theatre. Despite first-rate performances from a large cast of Broadway veterans and local stars -- including lead actor Cedric Neal, who is both -- the show, though staged lavishly with hundreds of costumes and more scenery than any DTC musical in recent memory, is a disappointing patchwork of underwritten characters and overwrought themes. It feels unfinished and is unrelentingly grim, with a dramatic nihilism that makes Death of a Salesman seem like a merry romp by comparison.

Power, who wrote book and lyrics, with music by Justin Ellington, has attempted something on the scale of Ahrens and Flaherty's epic 1996 musical Ragtime. (Stagger Lee's best song, "We'll Build a Home," sounds a bit like Ragtime's "Wheels of a Dream.") Ragtime, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, interwove stories of immigrants coming to America in the early 1900s. Stagger Lee, based loosely on some real-life characters who achieved mythic status in black history, tries to cover a century of African American life and culture, starting in the early 20th century and ending in present day.

The title character is one referenced in folk song and rhythm and blues tunes since the late 1800s. Lee Shelton, nicknamed "Stagolee" and "Stack-o-lee," shot and killed his friend Billy Lyons in a fight over, take your pick, a hat, politics, a card game or loaded dice. "Stagger Lee" later became an archetype of the violent thug. Will Power elevates Stagger, played with imposing hulk by New York actor J. Bernard Calloway, into an evil, eternal presence in black America. Get a little bit ahead, there's Stagger Lee to knock you back down. Try for a fresh start? There's Stagger, the inescapable devil, making life miserable.

The musical divides its scenes by decades indicated with changes in wardrobe and scenery (John Arnone's set seems partly inspired by the massive silhouettes of black artist Kara Walker). Song styles jump from ragtime to doo-wop to disco to hip-hop. Two couples, Billy Lyons (Neal) and wife Delilah (powerful singer Tiffany Mann), and Frankie (Saycon Sengbloh) and Johnny (Brandon Gill), try to live the American dream and never achieve it. They remain the same age in each time period as they move from St. Louis to Harlem, Chicago, Detroit and Oakland. And they replay the same scenario of penniless misery, their relationships tarnished by crime, drugs and infidelity. Wherever they go, there is also the haunting, taunting Stagger Lee.

Directed by Patricia MacGregor and choreographed by Camille A. Brown, Stagger Lee, for all the faults of its confused, un-dynamic script, benefits from the abundant talent of its ensemble, especially Neal. Always a fine singer in musicals in Dallas theaters (he played Puck in the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that opened the Wyly in 2009), he now performs with the confidence of an actor with three years of work on Broadway and the London stage. Mann, a Fort Worth native working in New York, sings with the thrilling emotional pull of the young Jennifer Holliday. Ensemble members M. Denise Lee, Traci Lee (Denise's daughter), Akron Watson, Major Attaway, Ricky Tripp, DTC company member Hassan El-Amin -- all terrific in multiple roles.

As Power frames it, black life and racism in America are just as bad as 100 years ago, maybe worse. He includes some stirring words by Martin Luther King Jr., in the second act, but there's no mention of Barack Obama. The last image in a final tableau is a young man in a hoodie, arms raised in the "hands up, don't shoot" posture. That's a sucker-punch to the audience, left to stagger out of this show feeling terrible about all of it.

Stagger Lee continues through February 15 at the Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Tickets, $18-up, at 214-880-0202 or

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