Karamu artistic director Terrence Spivey is feeling a special kind of pressure these days. "I was going into the store two days ago," he recalls. "The lady cashier said, 'Mr. Spivey, I can't wait to see the masterpiece. If anyone is going to replace a Karamu treasure, it's got to be another masterpiece.'"
The treasure she referred to was the beloved Black Nativity. Spivey is one of several artistic directors at Northeast Ohio theaters breaking with tradition this season. Not only is he shifting gears from Karamu's 30-year custom of presenting the gospel musical, but the show he's chosen as a replacement — his own adaptation of James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones — is not even thematically a holiday production.
It's a musical setting of Johnson's 1927 collection of poems by the same title. In the seven poems, Johnson honors the sound of Southern Baptist preaching, rolling out Bible stories and wisdom with titles like "The Creation," "Go Down Death" and "Let My People Go." The author was a friend of Karamu founders Rowena and Russell Jelliffe. He also wrote the black national anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and his works are required reading in the canon of African-American literature. Audiences are familiar with the words, but Spivey's theatrical work is brand new.
"This is my first time adapting a piece," says Spivey. "I broke some characters up. Some of the words are presented as a Greek chorus. Sometimes they echo what the minister is saying."
Curiosity about the piece has brought a lot of new performers to Karamu. Music director Sharolyn Ferebee will lead a band of keyboards, bass and percussion in spiritual-style music. Choreography is by Desiree Parkman and Talise Campbell.
"I'm excited and at the same time a little nervous because of expectations and because some people are afraid to let something go," says Spivey. "Me and [Karamu executive director] Greg Ashe decided it was time to bring out another gift."
Cleveland Heights' Dobama Theatre breaks with seasonal tradition in another way, with Gutenberg! The Musical!
The play by Chicago-based improv actors Scott Brown and Anthony King isn't a musical biography of the 15th-century German who invented the printing press, but the story of two guys, Doug and Bud, pitching a musical about Gutenberg, hoping to attract investors. As director Mark Moritz says, "It's the two of them telling the story with one piano and a whole bunch of hats that have the different characters' names on them."
The music satirizes musical theater with bad rhymes (like "Gutenberg" with "darn-tootin' berg"), bad puns (a song called "Stop the Press,"), bad irony (another called "I Can't Read") and lots of non sequiturs. Moritz says what holds it together is the characters' earnest belief in their project. "These guys take it very seriously. They really believe there is something in the piece that deserves a Broadway production. We end up really liking the guys and wanting them to be successful."
Moritz introduces a couple of Kent-based actors to the Cleveland area with the production: Dane Castle as Bud and Chris Richards as Doug. Brad Wyner — from local David Bowie tribute band Diamond Dogs — serves as pianist and music director.
"You will learn something about Gutenberg, but only minimally," says Moritz. "It's not a musical about Gutenberg. It uses him and that time frame as background, but it's not educational."
Actors' Summit artistic director Neil Thackaberry credits his wife and co-artistic director Mary Jo Alexander with tracking down Fred Alley and James Kaplan's Guys on Ice, which is not a holiday musical but does include ice and snow.
It's about two guys ice-fishing on a frozen lake in Wisconsin, drinking Leinenkugel beer and talking about their love lives, their devotion to fish (a miracle food, in their estimation) and telling bad jokes. It was originally produced in 1998 by Milwaukee Repertory Theater and the American Folklore Theatre during Wisconsin's sesquicentennial celebrations. Talk about aiming for the Lake Wobegon set!
Actors' Summit's production stars Dana Hart and Frank Jackman as the two fishermen and Sean Galligan as a moocher who borrows their bait and absconds with their beer. "We wanted something nonsectarian for the holidays," says Thackaberry. "No one will go away quoting lines, but man, is it fun."
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