Review: Sarah sings a love story at Ensemble

Prominent jazz artist Sarah Vaughan has been christened by her peers “Divine One” and nicknamed “Sassie”. She always preferred this nickname. Sadly, there’s no sass in Ensemble Theater’s tribute to the incomparable Vaughan, Sarah sings a love story, by Stephanie Berry. It’s not the fault of the performers, who all boast glorious voices, especially the silky-smooth Bridgjette Taylor-Jackson as Vaughan, who is downright phenomenal. They have more than enough sass for this three-character musical; it is the game that is so lifeless.

Elaine (Andrea Boronell-Hunter) and Russell (Steven J. Scott) meet cute in college at Manhattan’s famous jazz club, Birdland, where Vaughan performs. Although Elaine is into classical music, there is an instant connection between Elaine and the elegant vocals of Vaughan. Russell is already in love with this music, it’s his voice, he says. We believe it since Scott almost beboped everywhere, always on the move, stamping his feet, pumping his arms, in perpetual motion. Her voice is good too, singing a lovely rendition of “My Funny Valentine” to Elaine as she stares at him in amazement. Everyone is infected by jazz.

So we get the couple’s love story through the ages, a jazz-paced piece of memory via popular Vaughan hits of the era. They date, marry, have children, live in Birmingham, Alabama, the bus boycott, the assassination of ML King, Vietnam, the black riots, while Vaughan mentions her own struggles as a black singer during segregation and her own marital problems. All of this information is rushed through like an old movie montage of falling calendar pages. Elaine and Russell are a happy working-class couple, and the story around them is second-hand and circumspect. They’re more interested in how jazz makes them whole, which is Berry’s practical metaphor that she uses like a truncheon.

Elaine and Russell, sympathetic to one flaw, strong and individualistic, are rather bland as main characters. Elaine organizes the commercial boycott of their town during the black power struggles, but it’s covered up so superficially that the scope 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 – of the musical. It’s not enough.

Worse still, they’re talking mostly Vaughan numbers. Their dialogue is never incisive or relevant to warrant interrupting Taylor-Jackson’s impeccable performances. Whether this set-up is in the script or the invention of director Rachel Hemphill Dickson, it is wrong. Let her sing.

Placed behind a window to the right of the stage, the jazz trio swings impressively under the direction of maestro Chika Kara Ma’atunde on piano, Ronnie Mason on bass and Darren Coleman on percussion. They sound warm and add a watermark of Taylor-Jackson improvisation. She is gorgeous and is reason enough to see this pale play/musical. She captures Vaughan’s unique blend of smoky contralto and celestial soprano, that precise phrasing, those trills falling just like that. His renditions of ‘Tenderly’, ‘Nature Boy’, ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ and ‘Send in the Clowns’ (a particular favorite from Vaughan’s later career) are sublime. And she looks stunning in Macy Lynn’s elegant club dresses. If only she could sing without being hampered by these dialogue scenes occurring simultaneously.

Boronell-Hunter raises the roof of the Ensemble in the moving gospel number “Precious Lord” and closes it in prayer in Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, unfortunately truncated. And Scott gets his “Valentine,” but he’s still moving to the beat of life even when there’s no music. He seems to give off his own kind of jazz. All three are outstanding performers; Berry’s game, less.

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 to $53. Mandatory masks.

About Roy B. Westling

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