At the crossroads

Only recently have I been able to articulate why the stage musical so often encounters a "Keep Out" sign on the door of my heart. I'm an essentially sentimental person who can coo over empty packages when they're wrapped in original style, which is precisely what Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Webber and Rice were or are in the business of doing--stretching the musical's hollow frame with melodic wrapping paper and sticking frilly lyrical bows all over it.

But it seems to me the musical has undergone a sort of McLuhanesque devolution. The medium so long ago fused with the message that composers stopped referencing experiences outside of the hermetically sealed world of the musical. A philosophy solidified into a vernacular and then atrophied as its own language, similar to the bloodless Esperanto of the 19th century. This might explain why I often sit before even the most professional and exuberant of musical productions and yearn for a digital translation screen above the stage, like the one they have at the Dallas Opera. I recognize the facial expressions and body language, but the sounds pouring from the performers are--for me--flat, unnuanced, and completely self-conscious.

It boils down to a philosophical difference between lovers of the musical and myself over what we want from entertainment. Jeannette Winterson claims that the desire to find ourselves in art is antithetical to the preservation of a universal art form, but I'm an unrepentant narcissist. The details of one person's life--not a well-thumbed catalogue of ideas, emotions, and endings manufactured from raw theater--are the best way to hook me, because the more specifically an emotion is shaped, the more vivid will be its impact. Porter and Sondheim are masters of the particular, of nailing that well-observed detail.

Of course, I needn't have actually experienced the event that triggers the emotion. Joe Rogers and Rudy Eastman's original musical for Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre, Back on the Corner, is a perfect example. My knowledge of African-American life in the inner city is as extensive as my carpentry skills, but there were recognizable signs of life in the house that Rogers and Eastman built. This two-act revue of monologues, sketches, songs, and dance is a vaudevillian tour of ghetto life as executed by a cast with comic timing and beautiful voices to burn. Rogers, Eastman, and additional lyricist William Hass II keep political assumptions about poor urban blacks in their sights, but bring their targets into sharp focus by brocading these welfare-state cliches with the familiar patterns of everyday life. The senior citizen whose quiet nature and pre-Civil Rights youth conditioned him to feel (and act) subservient to white people ("he worked as porter, bellboy, or just boy") is poignantly honored as a stoic survivor in the elegy "Uncle Tom is Dead"; similarly, the sharp-dressed hustler who's drained lonely women of their money performs his "Community Service" to a jukebox-jaunty chorus of backup testimony by satisfied female customers.

The themes in Back on the Corner swoop away from and swirl back into themselves with such intricate precision that your attention is diverted from the shoddy foundation Rogers and Eastman have laid for their musical. The second act lacks the kind of grand finale that audiences have been stoked to expect by the shenanigans. After sailing through the air with confidence for 90 minutes, Back on the Corner lands with an abrupt thud--a repeat of the opening number "Back on the Corner" that offers a rhythmic workout rather than the moral/message we expect. In its generic, truncated final form, the song is a refrain, not a reprise. A cast as deft and generous as the Jubilee Theatre's deserves a billowing final float of a number to exit this raucous parade in high style.

In the meantime, these singer-dancer-actors kindle a flame inside each of the characters that sometimes rages into a beautiful bonfire as they launch into one of the numbers with live musical accompaniment by a crackling trio that includes Joe Rogers on keyboard. The little changes of attitude and direction the songs and stories take are invigorating. Kevin Haliburton marches out at the beginning of the second act and delivers a crackshot monologue about a former schoolteacher who made all her students memorize the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. Haliburton declares it was "bullshit" and proceeds to lament the fate of Lincoln, JFK, King, and other high-profile advocates of racial parity. Those men believed in the spirit of the Emancipation Proclamation, "and look what happened to them," Haliburton warns. The company launches into the sweetly yearning "Something To Believe In," and the moment is rescued from self-pity. "Neighborhood Merchant," arguably the evening's showstopper, is a galloping exorcism of the racism suffered by an Arabic store-owner named Mr. Rafeed (Kevin Earl) at the hands of his mostly black customers. The song's jangly Egyptian bounce perfectly defuses a racial stereotype by stretching it into exaggerated shapes. "Camel jockey? Sand nigger? Sadam Hussein?" Mr. Rafeed recounts the insults with exasperation. "I've never even seen a camel."

Back on the Corner sashays through the four great themes of the blues--sex, death, money, and betrayal--and cross-fertilizes them. "The Keys To Heaven" is a gospel exhortation by the Reverend Brown (Demetrius D. Ethley) for his congregation to avoid eternal death by repenting and "contributing to my Cadillac." In the hilarious mini-saga "Food Stamp Blues," Justina (Beth Ivy) betrays her own pride when she's forced to apply for food stamps so her children can eat properly. The resourceful Carolyn Hatcher plays a government employee who ignores her, a grocery checkout woman who treats her like scum, and a best friend who brusquely advises her "you can't afford humiliation right now."

Composers Joe Rogers and Rudy Eastman are indeed lucky to have such a marvelously versatile cast on which to drape their chaotic, charged creation. In fact, if Rogers and Eastman are a little flabby in the organization department, their songs emerge with even more startling clarity. I fervently wish an original cast recording of Back on the Corner existed, because I'd pop that puppy into my CD player to savor some of these songs again. The wistful "Without You," a ballad sung by a woman awaiting her truckdriver husband's return, gets a reading by the superb Carolyn Hatcher that literally trembles with cherry-red restraint; Robert Rouse Jr. carries the aforementioned shot of jazz, "Community Service," like a fat wallet, full of braggadocio and a suave kind of peace. Back on the Corner achieves enough such masterful moments to make hanging around well worth it.

Back on the Corner runs through Apr 20. Call (817) 338-4411.