June 28--"Talent Night at the Apollo" would do as an alternate title for the Ensemble's "From My Hometown" -- a modest, engaging entry in the recent parade of "jukebox" musicals.
The show assembles more than 30 R&B favorites, along with a half-dozen new numbers, to chart the progress of three ambitious young men who hit New York in 1980, determined to sing at the fabled Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Arriving at auditions almost simultaneously, the newcomers bond -- but also clash. Detroit, Memphis and Philly -- yes, they go by the names of their respective hometowns -- argue about which city has made the biggest contribution to R&B. And of course, they're in competition for a job.
Each does his audition spot and makes it to the next round. While waiting for callback auditions, they mostly conduct a sort of informal seminar on R&B, dropping the names of as many artists and singing as many songs and fragments as can be squeezed into the proceedings.
Can you believe they don't make it past the next round? Yet even with dreams slightly tarnished, they vow they're not giving up.
Act 2, for a time, almost seems a different show. The script (by Lee Summers, Ty Stephens and Herbert Rawlings Jr.) suddenly tries to get serious dramatic mileage from the characters' personal crises. Detroit even winds up a homeless person for a time. But then it's back to what the guys (and show) are really about, the quest for show biz fame. The guys finally realize what has been clear to the audience all along. While each is at his best performing, they're even better when performing together. To hit it big, they've got to swallow that "Hey, I do a single!" pride and form a group. Sure enough, by the finale, they're back at the Apollo, this time as one of the music world's top acts, aptly named Unity.
As usually holds with jukebox shows, if you love the genre being celebrated, you'll likely love the show. More critical from the theatrical perspective is the new stuff added to frame the oldies -- in this case, not great, but a lot better than in many such shows. Though slight, the script benefits from its casual camaraderie and authenticity. Summers' new songs are serviceable and smart, especially some set-piece numbers designed to frame several thematically related oldies, as in "Three Man Groups."
Patdro Harris' direction stresses speed and dynamism. His choreography for the stylized group moves is accurate and funny. Carlton Leake's musical direction is likewise authentic and spirited.
But the show's ace is its cast: Anthony Burgess-Glover, as earthy yet soulfully savvy Memphis; Ron Johnson, the eccentric yet practical Philly; and Jobari Parker-Namdar, making Detroit the urban smoothie with a troubled heart. Each is terrific as singer, dancer, live-wire personality, even handling those out-of-the-blue dramatic outbursts. When they merge in smooth harmony and jiving rhythm, we get a perfect demonstration of dynamic synergy.
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