‘Porgy and Bess’ Revived at ETC
*On Friday, May 13, Corky Hale presents I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU – The Life and Lyrics of Al Dubin, at the Montalban Theatre in Hollywood. This new musical features lyrics by Al Dubin, music mostly by Harry Warren, book by Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, and musical direction by Gerald Sternbach. The production is directed and choreographed by Kay Cole.
The Golden Age of Hollywood returns to the stage in the all-singing, all-dancing story of legendary 1930s lyricist Al Dubin, who along with composer Harry Warren and visionary film director Busby Berkeley and took movie musicals to new heights during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
Elijah Rock, a great fan of what he calls, The Great American Songbook, gets to perform the music of one of his music legends, Cab Calloway, in a featured segment of the production.
He spoke with EURThisNthat editor, DeBorah B. Pryor, about the experience.
“I have an interesting relationship to Cab Calloway. I have always included him in my act. In my musical performances with my band…I’ve had different size bands and orchestras and I always incorporated ‘Minnie the Moocher’ in my set. I actually did a recording of Minnie the Moocher with one of my previous bands and it became one of my signature songs when I would do a show.”
Rock says a friend of his called him to let him know about the show. “The next day I get a call from Michael Donovan, who casts a lot of the big shows in town, and he says ‘They want to see you for Cab.’”
At the audition, Rock says he didn’t sing his signature Cab Calloway song. Instead he sang other great tunes from the legend. “And of course, they booked me right away!” he says, rather nonchalantly on our telephone interview.
The entertainer recalls a special surprise from a friend who took him out to lunch on one of his visits to see his sister back home. At lunch the friend said, “Hey, I’ve got a surprise for you.” “He took me to the Cab Calloway Memorial, which is on the plot where his house used to be.”
The memorial is located in Rochester, New York.
“I was right there in his neighborhood. So you talk about God, his hand and full circle. It was definitely waiting to happen.”
See the photo of Elijah Rock at the Cab Calloway Memorial site directly below.
“You know I’ve always been singing the great American songbook,” says Rock. “All the way to the point that I have a big record coming out this Fall called “Gershwin for My Soul.” The artist says they will either go independent or with a major jazz label, and says they are looking at their options. “It was produced by Kevin Toney, who was one of the original members of The Blackbyrds. John B. Williams on bass. Just legends on the record.”
Rock describes the writing and acting in ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ as fantastic.
“The writers and actors are top notch. It’s definitely Broadway bound in terms of the level of script and actors,” says the Cleveland-born entertainer who travels back and forth, but currently makes L.A. his home.
With regard to his role in the production, Rock, who is one of three artists of color in the production says, “They gave me the show-stopper. The other featured artists, there’s a Carmen Miranda, an Al Jolson. Rock will be singing Luu’s Back in Town while wearing the classic white tux and tails that we remember the legendary Cab Calloway always wore. Rock says he also appears in several smaller parts throughout Act I.
Rock says he is enjoying the experience immensely and especially noteworthy is working with Corky Hale and the same team who launched the popular production, “Smokey Joe’s Café,” which also debuted at the Ricardo Montalban Theater, where this production takes place.
And in reference to the production itself, producer Corky Hale said, “Few Hollywood songwriters have hit the same heights as Al Dubin. The entire country was singing his songs, and when we think of the hits of his era, his are the lyrics that we hear. The man himself however lived a drama that was larger than the plot of any film that included his songs – and it is a fascinating and captivating story about a guy who had everything that life has to offer – and who couldn’t resist his addictions.”
Gershwin For My Soul, Rock’s upcoming record, will include jazz, disco, and pop. “It means a lot to me because I stand on the shoulders of the great crooners that have come before me like Al Hibbler, Arthur Prysock, Johnny Hardman, Nat Cole, Sammy [Davis, Jr.], all these guys and there’s really not one Black male in this category on the national scene so there’s a need.
I’m so happy with what Cécile McLorin Salvant’s doing. She won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal, and Gregory Porter. But African American males singing the great American songbook, of which we have contributed so much, I’m the only one at this level,” says Rock.
“There’s a lot of meaning behind me coming out and doing this record,” he adds. “Doing the show, Words By Ira Gershwin last year and really leading with the Gershwin album. It’s classic and traditional, but we put our little spin on it,” he chuckles.
When the entertainer was asked how Black audiences have responded to this type of music and production in the past he says.
“Its all about access and what kids are exposed to. When they’re exposed to it, they love it! When we do matinee shows for inner city kids, for example, we did the Roland Hayes show. You had so many kids that would not have been exposed to this.”
Previews for “I Only Have Eyes For You” began on Tuesday, May 10. The show officially opens on Friday, May 13, and is performed through Sunday, June 12 at the Montalban Theater, 1615 Vine St. in Hollywood. Performances will be on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm; and Sundays at 3pm.
Tickets are available now at www.flavorus.com or by calling 1-323-461-6999.
Playwright Daniel Beaty first heard a recording of Roland Hayes singing spirituals when he was an undergraduate at Yale University. It was a revelation. “I was stunned by the beauty of his voice and wanted to learn more about the man behind the voice,’’ Beaty says.
Beaty discovered that Hayes was born in Georgia in 1887, the son of a former slave. He rose to become the first world-renowned African-American classical vocalist, performing for royalty in Europe and breaking the race barrier as the first African-American to sing at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Yet despite his enormous accomplishments and fame during his lifetime, Hayes is not a household name. His legacy is overshadowed by those who followed him, singers like Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.
That may be about to change in Boston. “Breath & Imagination,” Beaty’s musical about Hayes, makes its New England premiere at the Paramount Center Mainstage this week. Produced by ArtsEmerson, it begins previews Tuesday and runs through Feb. 8. The one-act play tells the story of how Hayes overcame adversity and rose to international prominence. Most of the tale is biographical, but Beaty took creative license and embellished certain details for dramatic effect. The story unfolds as a memory play, with important people from Hayes’s life appearing to him as he prepares for the opening of a music school. The most prominent is his mother, Angel Mo’, who raised her son alone after her husband died in a factory accident. One actor plays all the other characters, including King George V, a policeman, and two white voice teachers who mentored Hayes.
Actor Elijah Rock played Hayes in previous productions in Cleveland and Los Angeles, and he is re-creating the role for ArtsEmerson. He says audience members have been stunned that they had never heard of Hayes, who died on New Year’s Day in 1977. “They say, ‘Oh my God, how could I not know this beautiful story?’ They feel gratitude, but a little bit of sadness.”
Unlike Anderson and Robeson, Hayes was not a political figure. He didn’t march or protest. His music was his activism.
His daughter, Afrika Hayes, a retired Boston public school music teacher, remembers him as a quiet man who expressed himself through music. “My father was not a political artist,’’ she says. “He didn’t grandstand.”
Afrika Hayes, at 81, is still a piano accompanist for the Walnut Hill School and the Boston Conservatory. She has long wished that more people knew her father’s legacy, especially in Boston, where he made his home as an adult. (There is a music school named after him in Roxbury.) She has read the play and attended a rehearsal, but she won’t see it until the official opening on Thursday night. “The play is an education for everybody — old, young, black, white, green, whatever,’’ she says. “This was a man from humble origins with a limited education. He did it all himself. He didn’t toot his own horn, and he lived to sing. That was his message to the world: ‘Don’t give up.’ ’’
The production is part of a larger effort by ArtsEmerson to use the arts to foster civic dialogue and social change. Beaty has begun a three-year residency called “I Dream: Boston,” an ambitious citywide project that aims to bring diverse members of the community together. Beaty, who is also an actor and singer, has published two books and is a sought-after motivational speaker whose motto is “Transforming Pain to Power.” He will conduct workshops and community meetings as a way to bring diverse groups together, to hear their frustrations, and to search for solutions.
“Breath & Imagination” kicks off the project, and Beaty took advantage of his residency to make changes to the play. In the original script, the show’s pianist doubled as a performer. The ArtsEmerson production has a separate pianist, allowing actor Nehal Joshi to play multiple characters without having to play the piano at the same time.
Director David Dower, who is ArtsEmerson’s newly appointed artistic director, is putting his own stamp on the play. Initially, a few of his ideas were confusing for Rock, who played the role slightly differently in previous productions. During a recent rehearsal at the Paramount Center, he and Dower stopped to discuss how to sing the music, which includes classical opera, spirituals, and original compositions. Rock said, “I have two versions in my head.” Dower put his hands to Rock’s temple, as if he were removing the previous version. “I’ll take one,’’ he said. Music director Jonathan Mastro laughed and said, “Just make sure you take the right one.”
Harriet D. Foy, who plays Angel Mo’, is delving deep into the complex role of Hayes’s mother, who had a dedicated but complicated relationship with her only child. “It’s like any parent-child relationship,” Foy says. “They go through a gamut of emotions from a big fight, to parting, to acceptance, which is what we do in life. There is love there, and she wants the best for him. She wants him to be a preacher — my grandfather was a preacher, and sometimes that was the best path. But she also can’t deny the gift that he has been given from God.”
The mother and the other characters arise from Hayes’s memory at a pivotal moment late in his life. He has a decision to make, and the folks from his past appear to guide him. “His relationship with his mother was his primary and most influential relationship,” Beaty says. “There is something about the depth of and complexity of the love between a mother and son that I would love for people to explore while watching one man’s journey.”
Afrika Hayes never met her grandmother Angel Mo’, who died before she was born. “I’m glad I didn’t, because she seemed to be very, very strict,’’ she says. “I probably would have said, ‘I don’t like you,’ or something silly like that.”
And she doesn’t mind that Beaty has taken creative license for the sake of the drama. “He got the person properly,’’ she says. “But the funny part about it is that Elijah is a baritone, and my father was a tenor.”
In the play, Hayes has a run-in with a brutal policeman after his wife and daughter are arrested for sitting in the white section of a shoe store. It didn’t happen that way, though. In real life, Hayes and his wife were arrested while Afrika, then 6, watched. “The policeman went up to my father and said, ‘There has been a charge against you, boy.’ Of course, my father was 50 years old. My father said he didn’t understand, and the policeman socked him in the jaw.”
That particular tale resonates for the creative team, who connect it with the current protests over police action in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. “I think there will be some resonance in that people will pick up on the issue of police brutality as it pertains to black men,” Beaty says. “But for me, the deeper resonance is that despite the challenge and opposition, there is something about the human spirit that allowed a black man to achieve what some thought was impossible.”
Rock and the members of the creative team are reminded of a popular symbol currently being used to protest the death of Eric Garner, who died after telling a New York police officer who had his arm around his neck that he couldn’t breathe. “I am thinking of the hashtag, ‘I can’t breathe,’ ” Rock explains. “This play will hopefully show us that we all need to breathe. The police need to breathe. The urban folks who have been suffocating need to breathe.”
And the title of the show has taken on a profound significance for the creative team. Dower puts it this way: “We are trying to put the audience in a space where they can move from ‘I can’t breathe’ to breath and imagination.”
Patti Hartigan can be reached at email@example.com.