A commissioned present (hooray for unique work), crammed with pleasure (a lightweight contact post-pandemic is what most individuals are craving), in regards to the sit-in protests that led to the desegregation of Houston (an vital story we have not seen earlier than), and make it a jukebox musical (as a result of Stages audiences like these sort of exhibits).
The challenge is, good concepts as every of those could also be, put all of them collectively (directed by Aaron Brown) they usually add as much as a tonally dissonant wisp of a present with little extra perception than the fast research historic timeline printed in this system.
The 12 months is 1960, and Houston’s Black and white populations stay collectively however individually. Each conserving to their aspect of the tracks, so to talk. Texas Southern University college students, Mae Florence (Sarah Sachi), Charline (Rayevin Johnson), Leo (Jordan U. Okeke), and Elijah (Kaleb Womack) collect collectively on the El Dorado Ballroom, a showcase for the nice black entertainers of the period.
Mae is there to work and to try to persuade membership proprietor Hannah (Stephanie D. Jones) to take an opportunity on her burgeoning singing profession. Leo is there out of unprofessed love for Mae. Charline comes by to prod Mae into training their sorority pledge paces.
It’s all younger ambition, love, and enjoyable (peppered by snippets of distractingly drum-heavy musical numbers like “Heat Wave” and “Mr. Big Stuff”) till Elijah bursts into the membership after a run-in with the police.
Rightfully, the present takes a darker flip, however relatively than let the angrily humiliated Elijah converse or sing his emotions in regards to the encounter, he as a substitute bursts into a couple of bars of “Fight the Power,” in traditional jukebox trend. It’s a quantity we’ll hear repeated a number of occasions in the course of the present (there’s that aggressively ahead drumming once more) and whereas we will all agree the tune (made well-known by the Isley Brothers) has a lot to say and a stable groove, it loses its punch when wedged limply into the narrative on this trend.
Unlike jukebox musicals that inform the story of a musical act (Jersey Boys, Beautiful, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical), Sit In isn’t counting on the songbook of an artist to inform a biographical story. Nor is it utilizing songs to inform a raucous and in the end foolish/enjoyable story (Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia!).
Joyous and at occasions humorous as this present could also be, in the end, Sit In is about segregation and the struggle to finish it. As such, characters expertise deeply uncooked conditions and feelings that may’t be adequately or particularly expressed by the period’s hit protest/chart songs.
This discord between character and tune is a constant downside all through the present even when coping with the much less severe moments. “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” serves as ointment for a possible romantic breakup and as a option to calm a bossy sorority sister. The laughs from each are appreciated although everyone knows the tune does not fairly match both state of affairs or reveal something substantive in regards to the story or characters.
But, transferring on to the sit-in.
Elijah’s run-in with the police leads him to speak in regards to the one-month-old Greensboro, North Carolina peaceable civil rights protest the place younger Black school college students staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter. He suggests the foursome take up comparable motion.
It’s right here that Rivon’s play has some meat to chew on. It’s additionally the longest stretch of the present not interrupted by half songs making an attempt to go as narrative stepping stones.
While Elijah’s fired as much as be a part of the already mounting sit-in protests occurring in Houston, his mates aren’t so certain. Leo talks about liking that every race retains to themselves, in contrast to what he skilled in New Orleans the place white individuals would encroach on Black neighborhoods seeking to make hassle. Charlene thinks utilizing the legislation and interesting to Congress is the way in which to have an effect on change. Mae worries about violence and getting arrested.
Then there’s skeptical and anxious Hannah telling the youngsters that minding their enterprise/build up their very own communities relatively than demanding equality, is the most effective plan of action. Never thoughts that their mother and father would kill them in the event that they discovered they have been contemplating becoming a member of a protest.
No group is a monolith and Rivon astutely portrays the variations and worries that these characters really feel in relation to taking motion on this method.
Unfortunately, what transpires from there by no means captures the identical emotional heft, although the scenes themselves cope with troublesome points. We study of additional protests and ensuing violence. The foursome lastly decides to take part within the sit-in the place they expertise simply how scary and troublesome change will be.
But at this level, Rivon is finished with any deep dive into advanced feelings, as a substitute selecting to let a smattering of ballad-like songs do the narrative work.
Frustrated with love, segregation, and ill-treatment by white membership homeowners throughout a signing audition, Mae has the second act’s spotlight quantity, “Bitter Earth”. Yes, as soon as once more, the tune does not fairly seize the character or state of affairs, however wow can Sachi sing the hell out of it.
In truth, she sings the roof off each quantity she’s in. It’s a efficiency that is heads and shoulders above her castmates who at occasions appear misplaced beneath the music, unable to carry these era-defining songs to life.
Director Aaron Brown offers us a tightly elegant sit-in scene however appears not sure easy methods to marry the remainder of the present with the musical numbers, leading to many clunky and anti-climactic moments.
This consists of the ultimate scenes which putter out with a whisper. We study of the desegregation of Houston third hand, eradicating us even farther from the characters we have simply spent two-plus hours with. It’s a traditional inform, not present transfer, and as generally, it seems like a letdown.
Rivon has an important and vital story to inform. She’s executed her analysis and is primed to make this piece of Houston historical past a must-see present. And certain, make it a musical, why not? You need it uplifting? No downside! It’s a very inspiring story.
Maybe drop the jukebox thought and get somebody to write down unique songs/lyrics for the present. Or discover a option to higher weave these songs into the narrative and provides us a extra fulfilling expertise.
Ideas are like equipment, it is easy to place too many on and spoil the look. Let the present put on the outfit, not the opposite means round.
You Are Cordially Invited to Sit In continues by May 22 at Stages, 800 Rosine. For extra data, go to stageshouston.com or name 713-527-0123. $17 – $79.