"Breath" Superb, "Imagination" Lacking
By FRANK RIZZO
The show: The world premiere of Daniel Beaty's "Breath and Imagination, The Story of Roland Hayes" at Hartford Stage
First impressions: The story of the first male African-American, world-renowned classical vocalist -- the son of a former slave -- is an important one to tell. To dramatize it effectively is another matter and Beaty's earnest play doesn't go beyond uplifting platitudes and sentimentality. The narrative of a man who is trying to find his unique voice -- and place -- in the world could be a fascinating thing to explore, but the writing is thin and sketchy, significantly supplemented with classical numbers, spiritual songs and original music by Beaty.
But what it also has is a trio of fine performances and a pair of sterling voices in Jubilant Sykes and Kecia Lewis. When they are singing it's easy to put reservations about the play aside. Being in the company of such singing is a privilege. It's just the play that disappoints.
In what way?: This bio-play presents many of the significant moments in Hayes' life but the scenes are brief and not fully formed.
It begins at a pivotal moment in Hayes' adult life in 1942 when he faces violent discrimination in his native Georgia as he is about to open an integrated music school, though it's a bit unclear who he is at that moment, what is happening and why.
The play flashes back to when Hayes was a shy, 10-year-old boy growing up in the poor rural South in 1897. In a series of abbreviated scenes, he attends church with his religious mother, his father dies in a factory accident and he and his mother move to Tennessee for unspecified reasons After the young Hayes is nearly killed in another factory accident, his mother promises to god that her son will be a preacher.
But the son seems to want more for his life and secretly starts taking music lessons where he -- and more significantly, others -- begin to understand and value his musical gift. The second act follows his journey to college and later to the world stage. It also continues the relationship with his mother who at first is against her son's dreams, only later supporting and guiding him. His fame grows to where he is performing before kings and queens but still discriminated against in the U.S.
Sounds inspirational: It is on the surface, but dramatic points are confusing, the dialogue is filled with cliches ("There is something different about my voice," "You got to be your own man,' "[God] wouldn't give you that voice if he wasn't expecting you to use it") and themes are mentioned rather than explored (about keeping focus, about finding one's own "true song"). The turnabout ending is abrupt, clumsy and lacks the emotional payoff it intends.
When Roland's mother tells him, "Reckon if you gone put all that energy into getting people to come out and hear you sing, you ought to make sure they understand what you got to say," you wish that advice was followed by the playwright.
And the music? Terrific, but one sensed that the music was doing all the heavy lifting in the production which is nicely designed by David P. Gordon, with Fabio Toblini's costumes, York Kennedy's lighting and Jane Shaw's impeccable sound design. Darko Tresnjak directs but even fluidity and taste can't disguise the story's holes and gaps.
Classical and spiritual vocalist Sykes plays Hayes at various ages and he does a credible job portraying the anguish, joy and humor of the character. His eloquent, elegant baritone voice is simply magnificent. Lewis brings authority and authenticity in the role of his mother, Angel Mo', and she sings like one, too. As the show's piano accompanist who also plays numerous parts, from racists to queens, Tom Frey shows his extraordinary versatility.
Who will like it?: Lovers of classical vocal music, spirituals and African-American history.
Who won't?: Those who expect more than a biographical recital., This is more like Chamber Music Plus, with better production values.
For the kids?: Young students will find the story inspiring.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Story simple, uneven and cliched about extraordinary life, but when it starts to sing, the heavens open up
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: My narrow cultural world just broadened by listening to Sykes sing. But the singer has a powerful presence on stage, too, as an actor. I will look forward to in other musical theater projects.
The basics: The play continues at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through Feb. 9. The play runs one hour and 40 minutes with one intermission. Evening performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m. Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. There are select matinees on some Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $26.50 to $93.50. Information at 860-527-5151 and http://www.hartfordstage.org.