Monday, February 7, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W7: The Tap Dance Kid, Black No More

What: New York City Center Encores!'s concert staging of the 1980s musical based on the Louise Fitzhugh novel Nobody's Family is Going to Change, about a young boy who wants to be a tap dancer and his uncle who wants to be a choreographer on Broadway.
And? I knew going in that this show was going to sideline Emma (who gets the big hero moment in the novel source material) in favor of young Willie; what I didn't anticipate is that both kids would both be sidelined by Uncle Dipsey, who gets as much stage time and I-Want arc as Willie. It's probably rooted in not wanting to make the young child actor carry too much (or perhaps worried that an audience needed a sympathetic adult character to invest in), but anyway. I also knew going in that no one seems to be a fan of either Charles Blackwell's book or Lydia R. Diamond's adaptation of it (which seems like another misguided bowdlerization--they removed, for example, the fat rep we're supposed to get with Emma, and come on, her fatness isn't meant to be a figure of fun, and are we going to pretend that discrimination against fat Black bodies isn't demonstrably worse than fat white bodies?). And yeah, the script is pretty not-great, hampered further by how utterly inertly each book scene is played. I know the Encores! series has extremely limited rehearsal time, but woof. And the songs? They're pretty forgettable too. It's a damn shame because the novel is great. But. The tap dancing? That's extraordinary. That's why we're all here. And they deliver on that. Young Alexander Bello is terrific as Willie, even tapping furiously away during a costume mishap in the grand finale. Trevor Jackson as Dipsey is an amazingly gifted dancer (which is lucky, because he has zero stage presence when he's speaking or singing; but when he's dancing he comes alive). And though he's not there to dance, Joshua Henry as antagonistic father William teaches us all how to treat a song like a monologue, taking us on a full journey, and reminding us what truly great acting can be (but then, we already knew that from his performance of "Soliloquy" in Carousel).

Trevor Jackson and Alexander Bello as Dipsey and Willie.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

2/05/22: Black No More
What: The New Group presents a new musical based on a 1931 afro-futurism novella of the same name, about a new scientific invention to change the pigment of Black people to make them look white, and thus escape the stigma of racial discrimination. The first man to undergo the experiment, Max, then journeys from Harlem to Atlanta and marries into a family who leads the local chapter of the off-brand Klan in this exploration of the dangerous corrosive effects of cultural assimilation.
And? The show functions more as a parable than a story, its characters (though ably performed by the uniformly excellent cast) symbols without necessarily being fully three-dimensional individuals. To a degree, it works, but it cuts off some of the emotional journey at the knees, especially when characters who are established at the top and bottom of the show as important emotional anchors don't actually have much to do in the way of character or plot development over the course of the story itself (I'm thinking specifically of Ephraim Skyes's Agamemnon and Lillias White's Madame Sisseretta, both of whom are relegated to the sidelines for the meat of the show). That's something that could be fixed, with more rewrites, but they're not there yet. Where we are though is still someplace pretty interesting. The Roots's co-founder Tariq Trotter is lyricist, co-composer, and secondary lead as Dr. Crookman, the inventor of the Black No More device, and he's achieved a lot with the score of this show, a world where everyone speaks in meter with verbal dexterity. Brandon Victor Dixon, pretty much always the most interesting part of any show he's in, continues that trend as Max, a man caught between wanting the genteel life he's always been denied and having to cannibalize his soul to achieve it. As the show's conscience Buni, Tamika Lawrence is captivating in her staunch integrity and heartbreak. Bill T. Jones's choreo is, for the most part, excellent and surprising (and proving that we don't need no stinkin' turntable to have dynamic staging). Qween Jean's costume design and Nikiya Mathis's wig and hair design are beyond gorgeous, full of striking silhouettes and individual markers for the ensemble. Jeff Croiter's lighting design is eclectic, embracing both classical stage lighting and more contemporary lamps  to throw us into a world we don't quite know but could. 

Brandon Victor Dixon, center, as Max Fisher, with ensemble.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

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