Searching for Feeling
You have to like In Search of Eckstine: A Love Story: The cast is extraordinarily affable, personable and energetic, and the music is so seductive. That's not to say, however, that this Shadow Theatre Company production is perfect. The script, by Jeffrey Nickelson and Hugo Jon Sayles, has its charm, but it's also a bit of a muddle, and some of the performances are hammy or just plain over the top.
The play, set in the '50s, tells the story of a hobo who is magically transformed into Tristain, a singer who once performed at the famed Five Points jazz club Green Dolphin Street. Tristain disappeared three years before the action begins, leaving unfinished love business in his wake. Played by Nickelson (who's also Shadow Theatre's artistic director), Tristain is soon singing the songs of jazz star Billy Eckstine, doing it with such elegance and power that the habitués of the club are galvanized, particularly an Arkansas waitress (Janice Guy-Sayles) and the suave manager (Vincent C. Robinson). The singer is joined on such numbers as "You're All I Need" and "A Sunday Kind of Love" by Mary Louise Lee as Nia Forche. She, too, has a glorious voice and can vamp or soar at will. The evening's third singer is Dwayne Carrington, playing nightclub owner Quentin. Among other songs, he turns in a heart-wrenching version of "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues."
The cause of Quentin's grief is Tristain's resumption of his onetime love relationship with Misty (Rhonda Nickelson), to whom Quentin is now married. There's general consternation among the bar's patrons at this development, and the genie who originally transformed the Hobo into Tristain (a magnetic Hugo Jon Sayles as the Magic) is baffled by the misfiring of his attempted kindness. Eventually, though, everything is resolved and everyone properly and happily coupled.
It's not the story that carries this production; it's the feeling that you're sitting in a jazz club rich with history and emotion -- and that you're particularly welcome there. The set is charming, with flickering candles, a cunning alcove for the bar and an evocatively blue-shadowed alley. The performers give the action everything they've got; the women are regal and the men stylish. Somehow it seems fitting -- and an honor -- when they line up at the end of this evening filled with warmth and music to shake your hand.
God¹s Man in Texas is set in a Houston church. It's a huge complex that includes a bowling alley, a shopping mall and a college campus, as well as two swimming pools -- a place where the credulous flock and the powerful congregate to make deals. Rock Baptist Church is run by a charismatic but aging pastor, Philip Gottshcall. In the first act, Jeremiah Mears, a younger preacher, arrives to deliver a month's worth of guest sermons. He's essentially being auditioned as a replacement for Gottshcall, and for the most part, the act is given over to the archetypal son-supplants-father story. By the second act, however, the struggle has changed: Gottshcall remains, but Mears is winning the political contest. Now the issue is whether he will be able to take over the church and still keep his soul.
Televangelism and the excesses of fundamentalist churches make easy targets for satire, but despite some humorous moments, playwright David Rambo has other goals: He wants to shed light on the dynamics by which preachers inspire and convince. Some of the strongest speeches in the play concern the relationship between preaching and salesmanship, and they're not entirely derogatory. The play also questions whether God can survive the financial and political machinations and crass marketing strategies of churches like Rock Baptist. "Has God ever whispered to man?" asks Mears in his first sermon.
Though this is an intelligent script, ultimately it doesn't work. The first scene, in which Mears talks to Gottshcall's assistant, Hugo, and gets the lay of the land, is talky and static. You're not quite sure why you're hearing what you're hearing. Interest quickens as the power struggle comes into focus, then lapses again as the second act opens and you realize Mears has the job. A complication involving Hugo feels thrown in to further the denouement. There's no real action, just talk. You don't identify with any of the characters, and the playwright's intention is unclear through most of the evening. By the time you realize it's Mears's spiritual life you're supposed to be thinking about, it's very late in the game.
The three-man cast at the Aurora Fox is excellent. Michael Pearl's Hugo is a sweet-tempered shlub. Dan Mundell -- astonishingly vigorous for his 81-year-old character -- is a riveting presence, flashing a huge grin and a kind of wolfish charm, full of self-righteous bonhomie and with mad, mad eyes. Rick Bernstein has a beautiful voice and delivers his sermons with feeling, impeccable timing and a fascinating mix of hucksterism and conviction. The set and music are so authentic that my companion -- who spent much of her childhood at services like those at Rock Baptist -- found herself fidgeting uneasily, and though the pace of the production might have been more varied in spots, the direction, by Denver veteran Terry Dodd, is skilled and thoughtful. The production's shortcomings are in the script.
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