Do the White Thing

All that bastardization of African-American music by white rock-and-rollers produced some terrific stuff. But white pop music is pasty indeed compared to original rhythm-and-blues masters like Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The rock musical A Brief History of White Music, in which a trio of black performers belts out a series of pale-pop hits, does a lot to prove how big a difference a little investment in soul can make.

This is as polished a musical as you're likely to find in this town--a sizzling local production of an off-Broadway hit with imported talent on the stage (the cast is very New York) and Denver's Rick Seeber in the director's chair. Seeber's touch is light enough to suit the mostly fluffy material. He has his performers moving in perfect synch, for example, when they imitate doo-wopping back-up singers. Natalie Oliver-Atherton, a statuesque goddess of a singer who has a gift for "acting" her songs, is also an accomplished comic performer. Tonya Latrice Phillips projects sweet vulnerability one minute and hip worldliness the next. She doesn't have all of Oliver-Atherton's moves, but she makes up for it with sheer vocal power. And the seriously built Charles Gray gives a silky performance, sliding from a rich baritone to a stirring tenor, then springing to a falsetto like a cat to a fence.

These three dazzling performers start out with the goofy, formulaic "Who Put the Bomp," written by nine-to-five songwriting machine Barry Mann. They sing the song with just a hint of parody before moving smoothly into the patently puffy Andrews Sisters tune "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen." Then the music turns suddenly cool--and Buddy Holly was cool--with "That'll Be the Day." Appropriately, euphoria descends over the audience.

The women transform sappy, teen-girl songs like "I Will Follow Him" and "Where the Boys Are" into gutsy torch songs. The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" becomes a kind of cultural commentary. Phillips puts on Elvis's "Blue Suede Shoes" with incredible moxie. And Oliver-Atherton and Gray perform a tender Elvis medley as if their hearts might break at any moment.

Comic style blossoms in "Love Potion No. 9," in which a guy with girl trouble asks a soothsayer for a love potion. When he kisses a cop, he lands in a lot of trouble, and we're right behind him. In Gray and Phillips's rendition of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe," Gray sinks to his knees to parody Sonny's small stature while Phillips emerges in an unsightly, long black wig (she wears her own hair in a gorgeous shade of golden blond). The pair mock both the sentimentality of the song and Sonny and Cher's simpering style. Even funnier is Oliver-Atherton's outrageous treatment of "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini," which she performs with a Carmen Miranda-like accent. She descends from the stage into the audience, picks out a likely victim, sits in his lap and flirts outrageously, ending her song with a kiss on his forehead. Few performers have the self-possession to carry off such a routine. But Oliver-Atherton's version is a scream--for everybody but the guy's wife, perhaps.

When the full company sings "Abraham, Martin and John," "People Got to Be Free" and John Lennon's "Imagine," they deepen the sentiments of those self-serious songs, slowing them down and bluesing them up. These three tunes have always seemed embarrassingly sentimental, but here they're transformed into hymns of grief and hope.

The one thing viewers might have wished for is a few better "white" songs mixed in with the mush--something from the Stones, maybe, or Creedence Clearwater (or, for that matter, the Righteous Brothers, on whose "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" Barry Mann outdid himself). Those white guys went for "blue-eyed soul," and it would have been rewarding to hear their best work reinterpreted by this excellent trio.

A Brief History of White Music, through June 1 at the Vogue Theatre, 1465 South Pearl Street, 765-2771.

 
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