Elijah Rock is a triple threat Entertainer and the next generation interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Elijah starred as the Crooner in the musical play, “Words by Ira Gershwin” directed by David Ellenstein at The Colony Theatre in Los Angeles. His new album, “Gershwin For My Soul” is currently soaring on the jazz airwaves as he pays homage to the songs and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin with a contemporary twist.
Award-winning triple threat Elijah Rock is a native of South Euclid, attended the Cleveland Institute of Music, and spent time as a Singing Angel. Now he’s returning to Cleveland to headline Grand Illusion: A Magical Odyssey, Cleveland Play House’s annual benefit on June 3. He’s also just released a new album called Gershwin For My Soul. Elijah visited WCLV to chat with Jacqueline Gerber. [Listen]
(Los Angeles, CA – March 31, 2017) Long-dedicated to upholding and aligning himself with the first class carriage and aesthetic of timeless entertainment, singer/actor/dancer Elijah Rock is carrying the blazing torch for the legacy of George & Ira Gershwin, bringing a contemporary and decidedly African American twist to their timeless music with several forward thinking projects.
Gershwin For My Soul (release date April 18) is the Cleveland-born baritone’s brand new critically acclaimed album. Jazziz Magazinemarvels, “Rock brings both chops and emotion to his masculine yet sensitive delivery.” Rock traveled to Thailand to star and make his directorial debut in a gorgeous music video for the lead single/title track “Gershwin For My Soul” that is bringing a sensual touch of class to video outlets around the globe. Rock and his lovely co-star cavort in the sun-dappled climes and evening breezes of Phuket interspersed with Elijah crooning about the timeless grace of Gershwin and sumptuous amour – thus Elijah’s new moniker, “Mr. Romance.”
It is but one of 12 masterful performances on the album, produced and arranged by Grammy-winning keyboardist/musical director Kevin Toney to bring the music of Gershwin into its rightful contemporary space, ably aided by bassist John B. Williams and drummer Greg Paul, plus guitarists Jacques Lesure and John Storie. The arrangements range from hiply syncopated updates on “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Our Love is Here to Stay” to Rock milking the rarely heard extended introduction to “How Long Has This Been Going On?” (before it falls like feathers into a soft brushed blues) and a version of the delightful “S’Wonderful” in a tender take that recalls the spirit of recently departed Al Jarreau. The album represents a full circle journey for Rock who started singing at 8 in church followed by his first Gershwin songs from “Porgy & Bess” at 16 at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
That connection is key to Elijah Rock reviving the music of “Porgy & Bess” in a revolutionary new presentation that takes what was originally written as an Opera then turned into a Broadway musical into a pure jazz adaptation. Utilizing the story as retold in the most recent Broadway book written by Suzan Lori Parks, with Kevin Toney’s sparkling arrangements for 5-piece band and Rock in the role of “Porgy” with a scaled down cast, this “Porgy & Bess” premiered at the 300-seat Ensemble Theater in Santa Barbara, California to raves from audiences bowled over by the intimacy, the freshness and Rock’s mastery.
NAACP Theater Award-winning triple threat Rock sailed into these latest endeavors on the wings of glowing acclaim for his stage performances of the characters ‘Crooner’ in “Words by Ira Gershwin” and of the legendary Cotton Club star Cab Calloway in the musical revue “I Only Have Eyes For You” for which he was nominated for a 2016 Ovation Theatre Award. The Glendale News raved, “Baritone Rock, with charm to spare, shifts smoothly from crisp jazz phrasings to the operatic…” The Hollywood Progressive proclaimed, “The youthful Rock, who appears in Showtime’s TV series ‘Masters of Sex,’ is establishing himself as one of his generation’s foremost interpreters and performers of The Great American Songbook.”
Up next for Elijah Rock is a residency in Las Vegas where a top team of producers are developing a vehicle around the star entitled “A Fine Romance” featuring The Songs of George & Ira Gershwin and The Great American Songbook. In this intimate show, Rock will flesh out the “Mr. Romance” in a theatrical environment that promises to bring back to Vegas the taste and sophistication of yesteryears.
“Before this experience, I hadn’t really embraced the balladeer aspect of my gift,” Rock muses. “It was about me being vulnerable enough to know I could do it. It’s been an interesting transformation for me.” Ultimately, Elijah Rock will be wowing longtime lovers of Gershwin music as he cultivates a younger audience with his all-around showmanship, singing and even his paddle-n-roll style of tap dancing – lost arts all that have found in Rock a tireless cultural savior.
“I believe there is a cross demographic that this music will serve,” Rock concludes. “I am grateful to Tony Bennett, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Gregory Porter, Diana Krall and Michael Bublé for their success in keeping the music relevant to today’s pop world. I approach singing from a traditional perspective with a fresh twist. Gershwin For My Soul not only represents America’s classical music, it will give me a platform to address a lot of other things about the culture and where we all stand today.”
‘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.
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 took movie musicals to new heights during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
Jared Gertner (Olivier nominated as Elder Cunningham in The Book Of Mormon) stars as Al Dubin. Possessed of enormous talent and equally outsized vices, Dubin, primarily with Warren, still managed to write such classics as “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “About a Quarter to Nine,” “42nd Street,” “We’re in the Money,” “You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me,” “September in the Rain,” “South American Way,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” and “Lullaby of Broadway” which won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1935.
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.”
Hale, who has had a lifelong fascination with Dubin, knows about the American popular song. She is a pianist, vocalist and harpist, who began with the bands of Harry James, Ray Anthony, and Jerry Gray, and went on to perform with Billie Holiday, Mel Tormé, Peggy Lee, Judy Collins, Liberace, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand (soloing at the famous Happening in Central Park), George Michael, and Björk. She is married to Mike Stoller of the legendary songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller.
I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU begins previews Tuesday, May 10, opens on Friday, May 13, and is performed through Sunday, June 12 at the Montalban Theatre, 1615 Vine St. in Hollywood. Following previews, performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm; Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available now at www.flavorus.com or by calling 1-323-461-6999.
Dubin, who also wrote songs with Jimmy McHugh, Duke Ellington, and Victor Herbert, worked with some of Hollywood’s most unforgettable musical stars, including Cab Calloway, Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and Carmen Miranda, who are all brought back to singing and dancing life in I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU.
With book by Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, the award winning screenwriters of “Peggy Sue Got Married”, I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU is a witty, wildly entertaining and ultimately touching portrait of a man who barreled headlong through life yet was often unable to get out of his own way.
The cast of I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU will feature: Nikki Bohne as Helen Dubin, Constantine Rousouli as Harry Warren, Kayla Parker as Ruby Keeler, Justin Wilcox as Al Jolson, Renee Marino as Carmen Miranda, Elijah Rock as Cab Calloway, Valerie Perri as Minna Dubin and Robert Pieranunzi as Busby Berkeley. Featured in the ensemble (in alphabetical order) are: Julian De Guzman, Daniel May, Jeffrey Scott Parsons, Dominic Pierson, Kim Louise Taylor, Katherine Tokarz and Karl Warden, and Penny Wildman.
I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU has assembled an award-winning design team. Set Design is by John Iacovelli. Lighting Design is by Brandon Baruch. Sound Design is by Cricket S. Myers. Costume Design is by Debra McGuire. Wig, Hair and Make-up Design is by Judi Lewin. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. The Stage Manager is Art Brickman.
The Colony Theatre is thrilled to present the final production of its historic 40th Anniversary season, the Los Angeles Premiere of WORDS BY IRA GERSHWIN A Musical Play by Joseph Vass, directed by David Ellenstein, Musical Director Kevin Toney, Musical Arranger Joseph Vass.
WORDS BY IRA GERSHWIN will preview on Wednesday, April 15; Thursday, April 16; and Friday, April 17 at 8:00pm. It will open on Saturday, April 18 at 8:00pm and continue through Sunday, May 17.
Meet the man behind the lyrics you love. With “Fascinating Rhythm,” ” ‘S Wonderful,” “The Man That Got Away,” “Long Ago And Far Away,” “A Foggy Day,” “I Got Rhythm,” and many more, the other half of the famous Gershwin duo guides us on a trip through some of the greatest American songs ever written. Insights and tales about his legendary collaborations all frame this fascinating and inspiring evening of music and theatre.
ABOUT THE CREATIVE TEAM:
JOSEPH VASS (Author/Musical Arranger) conceived and wrote Words By Ira Gershwin. He previously created The Soul Of Gershwin: The Musical Journey Of An American Klezmer, the hit musical for which Vass received the Minnesota theater community’s prestigious Ivey Award and which has been performed to rave reviews all across North America. His newest play Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Great Nome Gold Rush is slated for its world premiere at the North Coast Repertory Theatre this coming January 16, 2016. Vass also wrote the book, music and lyrics for the stage musicalMishegass! produced by the Actors Theater of Minnesota. He has composed, performed and recorded the dramatic music for stage productions like The Chosen and The Last Seder, as well as all the songs used in the score of the Canadian National Film Board film I Was A Child of Holocaust Survivors. He is the guiding spirit behind Klezmerica, the contemporary Jewish music ensemble which has performed in all corners of the United States and at the International Klezmer Festival in Israel. Vass wrote all the original music and lyrics on all of the band’s many recordings. Vass is a member of The Dramatists Guild. He divides his time at home between Maplewood, Minnesota, and Phoenix, Arizona.
DAVID ELLENSTEIN (Director) is pleased to be making his directorial debut at the Colony Theatre and to be working with his dear friend Barbara Beckley. David directed the premiere of Words By Ira Gershwin at North Coast Rep in 2013, and has subsequently directed productions of it at Park Square Theatre in Minnesota and Portland Stage in Maine. As Artistic Director of North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach CA since 2003, he has produced over 100 productions and directed more than 40 there. Favorites include Faded Glory, Becoming Cuba, and Mandate Memories (World Premieres), Time Stands Still,My Name is Asher Lev, The Drawer Boy, Becky’s New Car, Ghosts, The Tempest, Madagascar, A Shayna Maidel, Rashomon,A Moon for the Misbegotten, Collected Stories, Romeo and Juliet, and Story Theatre. Elsewhere, other directing credits include Sonia Flew starring Lucy Arnaz; Halpern and Johnson starring Hal Linden and Brian Murray; The Chosenstarring Theodore Bikel and John Lloyd Young at the Coconut Grove Playhouse and Papermill Playhouse, Rocket City (World Premiere) and Honky Tonk Angels atAlabama Shakespeare Festival, Alexandros (World Premiere) at Laguna Playhouse, A Christmas Carol at Meadow Brook Theatre, Halpern and Johnson at Portland Stage, Conversations With My Father at Portland Rep, Rabbit Hole at Actors Theatre of Phoenix, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night at Renaissance Theatre, and productions at Great Lakes, Southwest, Nevada, and Kingsmen Shakespeare Festivals. David is the former Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Repertory Company and the Arizona Jewish Theatre. He lives with his beautiful wife Denise and their amazing sons Jamie and Will in Carlsbad CA.
KEVIN TONEY (Musical Director and Pianist) is an award-winning musician, composer, and author. Theater credits includes national touring production of Five Guys Named Moe, Memphis (LaJolla Playhouse),Ain’t Misbehavin (Sahara Hotel),Sophisticated Ladies, James Brown: Get On The Good Foot (Apollo Theater), Atlanta (Geffen Playhouse), Its Only Make Believe, Gem Of The Ocean, Crowns (Pasadena Playhouse), Magic Of Motown (Tribute To Berry Gordy), Beggars Holiday, Harlem Suite (Pantages Theater), Dreamgirls (Ahmanson Theater), Smokey Joe’s Cafe? (La Mirada Theater), Henry IV(Kennedy Center), When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate, Ain’t Nothing But The Blues, Amen Corner, Wild Women Blues . Kevin was the leader of The Blackbyrds, the innovative jazz-soul band and wrote many of their hits including Rock Creek Park andUnfinished Business. He has released twelve acclaimed solo albums. Strut (2001) was selected by the 2002 Winter Olympics Committee as official Olympic music. His original composition Kings is a staple at jazz radio nationwide. Kevin’s latest album release is New American Suite. Kevin has also performed with major artists including Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Nancy Wilson, Pink, Shania Twain, Kenny Burrell, Carl Anderson, Obba Babatunde, Shirley Caesar, Ray Parker Jr., andEdwin Hawkins. Film scoring includes Kings of the Evening and Clarissa’s Gift. Books includeThe Virtuous Man – Breaking The Men’s Code and The Kevin Toney Collection. Awards include two Grammy nominations, three RIAA Gold Record awards, an NAACP Image Award, and a National Endowment ror the Arts Fellowship Grant.www.kevintoney.com
ABOUT THE CAST AND DESIGN TEAM:
JAKE BRODER (Ira Gershwin) co-wrote and originated the role of Louis Prima in Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara, winning three Ovation Awards, LADCC, Garland, and LA Weekly awards for Best Actor and Best Production. Originating at Sacred Fools and directed by Jeremy Aldridge, the production transferred for a 9 month run at the Geffen, directed by Taylor Hackford. As an actor, Jake’s other theatre credits include: Mozart in Amadeus directed by Sir Peter Hall (Old Vic London, Broadway, L.A.), When Harry Met Sally with Alyson Hannigan and Luke Perry (Theater Royal Haymarket, London), Lord Buckley in His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley (Off Broadway, Off West End, L.A.) and Ophelia & Juliet in the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of Shakespeare at the Criterion in London. Film includes: Bad Milo!, Kevin Spacey‘s Beyond the Sea, Shadow Dancer, L’entente Cordiale, In A Day, and The Barn (for which he was awarded the 2004 BIFA award), The Chicago 8, and the upcoming thriller Sleepwalker, withRichard Armitage. Television Includes: a recurring role on Silicon Valley (HBO), Company Town (CW), The Cleaner (A&E), How I Met Your Mother (CBS), Keen Eddie (FOX),Roman Mysteries (BBC), Strange (BBC), Line of Beauty (BBC), Broken News (BBC), Auf Weidersein Pet (BBC), and recurring role on The Eagle (Denmark-Winner of a 33rd International Emmy). His writing includes the produced plays Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara as well as His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley, and the forthcoming Our American Hamlet in development with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. He trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and lived and worked there for 15 years before coming back to the United States. In NY, he studied saxophone with Lee Konitz and went to the New England Conservatory & Tufts University. He is a citizen of the US and the UK. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the actress Lucy Davenport Broder, and Ella (7) and Louis (6 Months).
ELIJAH ROCK (Crooner) is proud to be back home at the Colony Theatre! For his performance of Roland Hayes in Breath and Imagination at the Colony, Elijah won the 2014 NAACP Theatre Award for Best Male Equity. Recently, he reprised the role of Hayes in Breath and Imagination with ArtsEmerson at the Paramount Theatre in Boston. He is also thrilled to debut his Jazz Cabaret show at the Colony. In film, Elijah is set to star in the biopic Lincoln Perry (Stepin Fetchit), to be directed by award-winning writer/director Antwone Fisher. Last season, Elijah made his television debut as a recurring guest star in season 2 of Showtime’s hit drama, Masters of Sex. He is a proud member of Actor’s Equity Association(AEA) and SAG-AFTRA. Website: www.elijahrock.net twitter:@elijahrock
ANGELA TEEK (Chanteuse) appeared on the original Star Search hosted by Ed McMahon where she was undefeated ten consecutive weeks winning the $100,000 grand prize as female vocalist champ. Legendary producerDavid Merrick took notice and cast her in the leading role of Kay in George Gershwin‘s musical Oh Kay and played Sara in the Tony Award-winning musical Ragtime. She went on to perform with the Roanoke Symphony where she broke all attendance records in an hour-long tribute to Gershwin and Cole Porter. She was Don Rickles‘s opening act in an extended Las Vegas engagement at the Golden Nugget Hotel. She has appeared on a number of television shows and continued performing on stage in leading roles such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Beehive, You Never Know (for which she was nominated for an NAACP Best Supporting Performance Award), and as a featured vocalist with the highly-acclaimed international dance production show Burn the Floor. Most recently, Angela has performed leading roles in Sophisticated Ladies, the world premiere of Ray Charles Live at the Pasadena Playhouse directed by Sheldon Epps, the world premiere of The Princess and the Back-Eyed Pea at San Diego Rep, the Toronto company of Rock of Ages, and Queen for a Day starring Alan Thicke. Currently, she is the voice for Viv and Mama Bear on the award-winning cartoon Peg + Cat on PBS. Angela is thrilled to be performing at The Colony Theatre for the first time and with another Gershwin musical. angelateek.bandcamp.com
WORDS BY IRA GERSHWIN features an award-winning design team. The Scenic Design is by David Potts (Emmy Award – HBO’s Deadwood). The Costume Design is by Dianne K. Graebner (Ovation nominations – The Brothers Karamazov andBattle Hymn). The Lighting Design is by Jared A. Sayeg (Ovation nominations – Trying and Kiss Me, Kate). The Sound Design is by Drew Dalzell (Ovation Award – Songs for a New World). Property Design and Set Dressing is by Colony Theatre resident propmaster John M. McElveney and Scenic Art is by resident artist Orlando de la Paz.
WORDS BY IRA GERSHWIN will open on Saturday, April 18 at 8:00pm and continue through Sunday, May 17. Performances for WORDS BY IRA GERSHWIN are Thursdays & Fridays at 8:00pm; Saturdays at 3:00pm & 8:00pm; and Sundays at 2:00pm. Ticket prices range from $20.00 – $49.00 (group discounts are available). WORDS BY IRA GERSHWIN will preview on Wednesday, April 15; Thursday, April 16; and Friday, April 17 at 8:00pm at The Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street (at Cypress) adjacent to the Burbank Town Center Mall. Opening night performance with reception – all tickets $55.00. There are question-and-answer talkbacks after the performances on Friday, April 24 and Thursday, May 7. For tickets, call the Colony Theatre Box Office at 818/558-7000 ext. 15or online at www.ColonyTheatre.org.
The Colony Theatre has long been a vibrant center of L.A.’s theatre life. Its subscribers renew at an astounding rate of 90%, and in 2012 the theatre received nine Ovation Award nominations, including the coveted one for Best Season. From its beginnings in 1975 as a 99-seat Equity-waiver theatre in Silver Lake, the company became so successful artistically, and built such a large subscriber base, that in 2000 it was able to move into a 270-seat state-of-the-art theatre created for it by the City of Burbank. As such, it became one of only a handful of mid-sized professional theatres in the L.A. area that produce a year-round season of plays and musicals, and that employ actors under contract with Actors’ Equity Association. The theatre is located at 555 North Third Street, at the corner of Cypress, in the heart of Downtown Burbank.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.