Sarah Sings a Love Story Offers Beautiful Voices Muffled By the Dialog

The story of Sarah Vaughan in a musical.
The story of Sarah Vaughan in a musical. Photo by Stephanie R. Brown

Preeminent jazz artist Sarah Vaughan was christened by her peers as “Divine One,” and given the nickname “Sassie.” She always liked that moniker best of all. Unfortunately, there's no sass in Ensemble Theatre's tribute to the incomparable Vaughan, Sarah Sings a Love Story, by Stephanie Berry. It's not the fault of the performers, who all possess glorious voices, especially silky Bridgjette Taylor-Jackson as Vaughan, who is downright phenomenal. They have more than enough sass for this three-character musical; it's the play that's so lifeless.

Elaine (Andrea Boronell-Hunter) and Russell (Steven J. Scott) meet cute during college at the famous Manhattan jazz club Birdland where Vaughan is performing. Although Elaine's into classical music, there's an instant rapport between Elaine and Vaughan's stylish singing. Russell's already enamored of this music, it's his voice, he says. We believe him since Scott nearly bebops throughout, always on the go, foot tapping, arms pumping, in perpetual motion. His voice is fine, too, crooning a lovely rendition of “My Funny Valentine” to Elaine as she stares at him starstruck. Everyone's infected by jazz.

So what we get is the couple's love story through the ages, a memory play riffed through jazz via Vaughan's popular hits of the time. They date, get married, have kids, live through the Birmingham, Alabama, bus boycott, M.L. King's assassination, Vietnam, black riots, while Vaughan mentions her own struggles as a black singer during segregation and her own marital problems. All this info is rushed through like an old movie montage of falling calendar pages. Elaine and Russell are a happy working-class couple, and the history surrounding them is related second-hand and circumspect. They're more interested in how jazz makes them complete, which is Berry's handy metaphor that she uses like a truncheon.

Elaine and Russell, personable to a fault, strong and individualistic, are rather bland as leading characters. Elaine organizes the business boycott of their town during the black power struggles, but this is covered so perfunctorily that the magnitude of her protest is lost in the dreamy shuffle. The couple's only personal conflict is when Elaine misplaces Russell's prized fraternity pin that he gave her when he proposed. This is the big dramatic scene – the only dramatic scene – in the musical. It's not enough.

Worst of all, they talk over most of Vaughan's numbers. Their dialogue is never incisive or relevant to warrant interrupting Taylor-Jackson's impeccable renditions. Whether this staging is called for in the script or is director Rachel Hemphill Dickson's invention, it is wrong. Let her sing.

Placed behind a window at stage right, the jazz trio swings impressively under maestro Chika Kara Ma'atunde on piano, Ronnie Mason on bass, and Darren Coleman on percussion. They sound hot and add improv filigree to Taylor-Jackson. She is magnificent and is reason enough to see this wan play/musical. She catches Vaughan's unique blend of smoky contralto with heavenly soprano, that precise phrasing, those trills dropped in just so. Her renditions of “Tenderly,” “Nature Boy,” “Someone to Watch Over Me”, and “Send in the Clowns” (a particular favorite of Vaughan's later career) are sublime. And she looks splendid in Macy Lynn's stylish club gowns. If only she'd be allowed to sing unencumbered by those dialogue scenes occurring simultaneously.

Boronell-Hunter raises the Ensemble's roof in the stirring gospel number “Precious Lord” and prayfully closes it in Schubert's “Ave Maria,” sadly truncated. And Scott gets his “Valentine,” but he's always moving to life's rhythm even when there is no music. He does seem to exude his own kind of jazz. All three of them are sterling performers; Berry's play, less so.

Performances continue through July 31 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Fridays, 8 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at The Ensemble Theatre, 3500 Main. For more information call 713-520-0055 or visit $41-$53. Masks required.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover