Three male performers meet by chance in Harlem, each on the way to callback auditions at the famed Apollo Theater. They spar competitively with each other, bond briefly, and suffer the inherent problems that accompany being short of the green stuff. In From My HometownAct One introduces them, and Act Two does more of the same, before skyrocketing them to success as a trio. Their story is told in dialogue and music, some original, and some R&B's greatest hits.
Three strong performers create vivid characters, and immediately capture and hold the attention, and even the hearts, of the audience. Each is known by the name of his hometown. "Memphis" is played by Anthony Boggess-Glover, a 25-year veteran of the Ensemble Theatre, who has a large and imposing stage presence, an engaging smile, and can dance up a storm when needed. His charm anchors the evening, and had me wreathed in my own smiles for almost the entire time.
"Detroit" is portrayed by Jobari Parker-Namdar, younger and with some of the poise and flash of a young Sinatra, and some of the dance authority of Michael Jackson. His character is more edgy, with an overtone of arrogance, but is invariably interesting, whether pulling a bluff, or down-on-his luck. And Parker-Namdar wears his snap-brim fedora with style and panache.
Ron Jonson plays "Philly" - his character is written as a bit of a bumbler, and he is compelled by the script to be less adroit as a dancer, though he has the moves when needed. He is naïve, and nurturing, eminently likable, and completes the triumvirate of vastly different performers having one thing in common - the dream of success. These are talented singers, but, make no mistake, they are skilled actors as well. The chemistry between each is authentic, and their rich performances bring to life a predictable script largely devoid of surprises.
This flaw is less apparent than might be expected, since seamless rhythms carry us along on waves of pleasure. "Working in a Coal Mine" and "Chain Gang" strike a serious note, while "Walkin' the Dog" and "I'm Your Puppet" hit exuberant themes. But much of the music consists of interesting and tuneful original songs by the multi-talented Lee Summers, who conceived the show and brought in his collaborators, Ty Stephens and Robert Rawlings, Jr.
The show is brilliantly directed by Ensemble's Patdro Harris, who has worked his magic on a simple tiered set, enlivened by projected images on four square pillars that rotate, designed by Jodi Bobrovsky. The excellent musical direction and arrangements are by Ensemble's Carlton Leake.
This production is so enjoyable and powerful that one wishes the script was better. The storyline is odd indeed, a rags-to-riches tale with a kangaroo shape, all character introduction that fills the long first act and spills over into the much shorter second act, with just a sampling of their success - the "riches part" -- in a flash-forward-ten-years finale. We have learned to know these individuals, to like and admire them, yet we are not permitted to share and savor adequately their well-deserved success.
This show already has had a NYC run, opening at the Kirk Theater, then transferring to the much larger Gramercy Theater, and has had several other productions, so it is hardly a work-in-progress. Yet the Ensemble production is so polished, and the casting so excellent, I can't help but wish that dramaturg Jo Anne Davis-Jones and director Patdro Harris discuss with Lee Summers a possible expansion of Act Two. What is already more than good could be really great. The verdict:
Thanks to superb casting and direction, this musical takes off early and brings us with it on a journey of pure pleasure. Don't miss it.
From My Hometown continues through July 28 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street. For ticketing or information, call 713-520-0055 or contact www.ensemblehouston.com.
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