Stage: Wednesday, December 19, 2002
Travelin’ Shoes
Thru Jan. 5 at Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main St, FW. $14-25. 817-338-4411.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
My Adidas

’Tis the season for Travelin’ Shoes to wonderfully trace black music’s history.

By MATTHEW SMITH

Light up front, and no surprise here, Jubilee Theatre pulls off yet another crackerjack production.

Most Jubilee shows, not all of them, tend to be music-filled blowouts in which musical numbers are employed both to entertain fans and propel the plots of sometimes story-rich narratives. Other productions, closer to concerts really, rely mostly on song and dance and relay little or no story per se.

Travelin’ Shoes is one of the latter. With 20 songs, scant dialogue, and a spiritual bent, the play’s only discernible “story” — other than black music’s history — seems to be about the pilgrim’s journey toward redemption.

If that sounds as dreary as sitting through a long church service, nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing dreary here. True, many numbers are straight-on gospel, but others, despite a spiritual slant, flow through blues, barbershop quartet, soul, and more.

Given the month and its religious overtones, one might expect a Christmas play — which Travelin’ Shoes both is and isn’t. Although the Yuletide is never directly mentioned, the play’s overall mood leaves one to contemplate the moral high ground of the season (hint: it’s beyond shopping malls and Santa Claus).

To dimming lights, before the actors even take the stage, snippets of pre-recorded music (e.g., rap, R&B, jazz, big band) reach backward through a musical odyssey to the original wellspring: gospel. “Gospel Train” burns along at an infectious chooka-chooka rhythm, with Robert Rouse singing lead while other members provide sturdy backup, complete with locomotive sounds and movements.

After such a high-energy kick-off, Rouse, in one of the play’s few explanatory speeches, quickly sketches black music’s journey from Africa to America and the development of singing quartets (though, oddly enough, five singers appear onstage).

Later, such interludes find Rouse namechecking the Fisk University Jubilee Singers and marveling at the shared origin of gospel and blues — one divine, and one, well, less so — illustrating the duality of mankind.

Rich, joyous music — most of it a cappella — reigns supreme. The singing and movement come off fantastically. Better yet, no off moments arise and stall the flow. Certainly, some selections outshine others, but not one song ever descends into awkward let’s-wrap-this-up tedium. Instead, the catchy, memorable numbers are guaranteed to leave at least one hook pleasantly jangling through your head long after you leave the theater.

The highlights are many. During “Hide Me In Thy Bosom,” Keron L. Jackson holds a high note seemingly forever. Given the willingness of today’s so-called pop divas to use vocal acrobatics to mask a lack of substance, it is heartwarming and amazing to hear such vocal beauty perfectly complement such worthy material.

The singers also tackle the persona of a preacher on fire. “Cheer the Weary Traveler,” with lines such as, “brethren and sisteren, we be here!” does so comically while “Take Your Burdens to God” chucks the jive for a straightforward, although doo-wop-drenched, revival.

“Dipsy Doodle,” arguably the night’s craziest blast of whimsy, careens like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” as done by Sly Stone, and it’s followed by a slick reprise of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” What a party indeed.

“Bye and Bye Little Children” effortlessly switches from gospel to rap and back, wonderfully accentuating the connective web of all music, pushing each individual form and genre toward a much bigger whole. One of the night’s few instrumentally backed moments, the song weaves an exotic-instrument spell of rain sticks and African finger pianos.

From harmony to choreography, everything hums like well-oiled clockwork. Such tight professionalism, however, hardly hampers the play’s fresh, giddy looseness, which allows for breathing space and improvisation. (Mid-song, Kevin Haliburton momentarily paused, spied a front-row patron, said, “Hey, howya doing tonight? Having fun?” shook the man’s hand, and just as quickly jumped back into character. And halfway through “I Looked Down the Road,” Rouse pulled two audience members onstage for a sing-along. An initially reticent woman quickly got into the spirit, to everyone’s delight, while an older gentleman arrived so into-the-fun that, for a moment, both audience and actors appeared apprehensive at the thought that he might stay on through the end. Pre-planned or not, such moments were splendid.)

Most of Travelin’ Shoes’ success comes from the cast of the singers, which also includes Victor Dewberry and Aubrey Stephenson — these two and the rest made the no-doubt heavily rehearsed repertoire appear effortless and spontaneous.

The only downside, and this applies to many Jubilee musicals, is that you wish Rudy Eastman (Jubilee’s director) would start a record label and release some of this stuff for our at-home listening pleasure.

Someday, maybe he will. For now, though, take a break from the Christmas rush and slide on down to the Jubilee. Just come prepared to clap, sing, dance in your seat, and celebrate the season with abandon.


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