This charming man

Editor's note: Beginning this week, P.B. Miller, a longtime Dallas Observer contributor, takes over our regular Stage column. Nora FitzGerald, our previous columnist, has relocated to the Washington, D.C. area.

Before she passed, Eurydice-like, from these pages, Nora FitzGerald asked me to visit several area theaters she had been unable to reconnoiter during her tenure as Stage writer.

Practically her last words as an Observer columnist were, "P.B., when I'm gone, tell me you'll get to the Jubilee and other promising stages that destiny, dual employment, and motherhood conspired to keep me from. I'll rest easier knowing that someone is looking after them for me."

Well, a chap has to have a pretty low regard for the forces of karma to ignore a request like that one, so to drop in on the Jubilee in downtown Fort Worth became the work of the moment.

The Jubilee is an African-American musical theater that has been on the local scene for nearly 15 years, though it has only occupied cozy quarters on Fort Worth's Main Street since 1993. It's the sole African-American theater in the Metroplex producing a year-round, seven-show season, and it also serves as an outreach center, presenting black history programs for Tarrant County schools, staging high-school drama workshops, and generally holding up its end of the cultural bargain.

The Jubilee produces standard repertory works in addition to providing a forum for local talent to produce original pieces. Black Orpheus, a new musical by Joe Rogers and Mark Caywood inspired by Marcel Camus' 1959 film of the same name, is an example of the latter. It is one of five original musicals composer Rogers has written for Jubilee, in this instance with another Fort Worthite, author-lyricist Caywood.

Based on this production, they have a good thing going.
The positive vibes begin with the set. An adorned stage, uncurtained to the audience, speaks directly to the theatergoer's impressionistic mind--even as he or she is adjusting an errant gluteus or peering over the playbill for familiar names or credits. A good set is one that lurks with potentialities, all of which register sensorially and emotionally with the audience. That's why a bare stage expressing pure potential is often the best stage.

Designer Roger Ross has packed the Jubilee stage with potentialities. His set features Rio slum dwellings shoved up against each other and quilted together with corrugated tin, old Chesterfield cigarette signs, swatches of cloth, and other bits of ghetto detritus. The set connotes sweaty, paid-for trysts, earthy chit-chat, and the various emotions, both comical and tragic, squeezed from life in a human compress.

Orpheus, in this reworking of the legend, is the one character self-contained enough to stand outside of his environment. While all the other slum dwellers accept their roles as buyers or sellers in a vast marketplace, Orpheus appears to subsist on charm alone. A natural philosopher of sorts, he opines that "the better you feel about yourself, the less you need. That's why it's always unhappy folk who get rich."

He also is impervious to the religion that his fellows need so badly to sustain themselves, whether it be Christianity or African paganism. The only god he pays homage to is the one he can see in the sky and feel on the skin of his back.

Being free, he is, of course, a temptation to women and an inspiration to men. Indeed, Orpheus' lure is so irresistible that he can sing the sun into the sky and so bring night to an end.

Eurydice, an innocent newly arrived from the provinces, is his kindred spirit, a transcendently pure being who speaks with the voice of Orpheus' own heart. Death summons her on Carnival night, however, and not having the city dweller's knack for survival, she answers his call and sinks into the underworld.

Orpheus then descends to Hades to attempt to win the sympathy of the dead with his song, and so bring Eurydice back to life. He succeeds in this, but he violates Death's prohibition that he not sneak a peek at Eurydice on the journey home. When Orpheus does so, Eurydice is immediately sucked back down to Hades, making Orpheus the only man unlucky enough (or lucky enough, depending on your point of view) to have his significant other die on him twice.

Orpheus' descent and resurrection prove redemptive, however, as his cohorts are inspired by it to seize more control over their own destinies. At the end of the play, they are collectively able to sing on the dawn and so conclude an interminable night.

If this seems a little heavy for musical theater, it is, and that is the production's main strength. Black Orpheus is imbued with more intelligence and poetry than most musicals generally aspire to.

Another strength is a surprisingly varied and effective score. A live band, concealed behind the set, accompanies a series of songs ranging in style from samba, jazz, and traditional Broadway to a little touch of Gilbert and Sullivan. In fact, the show is just one catchy melody shy of being ready for a much larger venue. Unfortunately, the one number that should really shine--"Awaken," the song Orpheus uses to reanimate Eurydice--is saddled with one of the show's least memorable melodies.

Director Rudy Eastman has assembled a uniformly strong cast that performs with energy and elan. Their one weakness is a tendency to deliver occasionally florid lines like pronouncements rather than real speech. Carolyn Hatcher, Angela Ashford, Darlene Smith, and Renee Micheal, as women enamored of Orpheus, display fine voices and considerable charm.

Micheal, in particular, sports a glamorous pug and a come-hither manner likely to singe collars and fog glasses. Mario Gonzales as Hades exudes a compressed menace from his slight frame, and Robert Rouse is effective as Hermes, a one-man chorus who serves as a transitional figure between the material and the spirit world.

Yolanda Williams is appealing as the ingenue Eurydice, and she also has an excellent singing voice. The role is somewhat underwritten, however, and requires an actress to suggest hidden depths, an accomplishment still out of Williams' range.

Khary Payton, a drama student at SMU, plays Orpheus, a tough assignment for any actor. After all, how do you live up to a character who commands so much charm and wields such a compelling voice that trees tear themselves up by the roots to follow him around? Payton holds his own in the charm department, but his voice lacks the kind of Sam Cooke sweetness needed to make both women and stones melt.

Black Orpheus offers an entertainment tip the canny boulevardier will not disdain. Lunch or a late breakfast at a Fort Worth bistro, a quick amble around the Kimbell, a matinee performance of the play, and a home viewing of the film to top it off with. Following this lead, one can spend almost an entire day in Rio without having to take a plane and risk sitting next to a sweaty salesman, or worse, a theater critic.

Black Orpheus plays at the Jubilee through August 13. For ticket information, call (817) 338-4411.


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