Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Celestial Celebration through Feb. 27-March 1, 2009 at Laney College Theatre

"A Celestial Celebration" directed by James Brooks, with musical direction by Bryant Bolling

Last weekend I went to a party in heaven. I was so happy to be on the A-list ‘cause everyone I’d always wanted to meet, but missed this lifetime was there. Isaac Hayes was the host—how I miss him. As he played piano, sang and introduced guests, each celebrity strolled up to the microphone to chat and sing a song or two.

There are talent shows and then there is the Celestial Celebration—can’t top heaven…I think that’s why celestial real estate is a goal human beings put stock in.

Carmen McRae was on the set that evening, along with Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson and Pearl Baily early on in the show. Later on, Josephine Baker danced her way around the stage…dressed in her bananas. All the costumes were classic period pieces...from pearls to stolls.

The company collaborated with Laney College on costumes and make-up. James Brooks attends voice classes at Laney, so the team was already in place when after writing the play, he decided to mount it there. Bay Area audiences know James for his work in establishing theatre here in the San Francisco Bay Area. He and Michaal Lange founded the Bay Area Repretory Theater. He is known also for his role in Jeff Stetson's The Meeting, his role that of Martin King. He is a filmmaker as well.

Celestial Celebration is the kind of play one wants to take the entire family to. As I sat in the audience, I heard patrons speaking about how they knew one artist, but not another, knew a familiar song but not the singer. I really enjoyed the Pigmeat Markham skits.They reminded me of Sunday evenings when I was a child and we’d watch Ed Sullivan and afterwards there were skits with black comics. I remember, “Here comes the judge.”

Abbie Rhone and Edward Jackson were really funny. And the singers in both the first and the second half were outstanding. When I told a friend about the show they couldn’t believe that the level of skill was equally high for all the actresses and actors, but my favorite characters were, besides the comediennes: Shaunna McKneely’s “Ella Fitzgerald,” Brud Duckett’s “Sarah Vaughn,” Phil Lewis’ “Sam Cook” and Kwana Thompson’s “Miriam Makeba.”

Oneida Cordova’s “Eartha Kitt,” who just made her transition to the Celestial Ballroom last year, was in a class all by herself as was the host that evening Isaac Hayes (Bryant Bolling), who caught the same train to heaven, Kitt was on. I’d seen Hayes and Kitt, in concert before they died and the two actors did them proud—but as I said, the entire cast was in fine form. There was a live band which was also awesome!

James Brooks has written a winner. I don’t know where he found such an illustrious cast, but certainly the angels in heaven smiled on this production. I hope he does it again and again—it’s a musical history lesson I guess on par with “Cabin in the Sky,” but with an entirely different intent and twist. The characters here have dignity and grace, their contributions both recognized and respected in the writing and in the way the characters treat each other. I get the feeling that these Celestial Celebrations didn’t happen often, so folks were out in their glad rags strutting and I’m so happy they left the door ajar so we could peep inside.


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