Stage: Wednesday, August 4, 2004
Kevin Halliburton, Carolyn Hatcher, and Robert Rouse Jr. in "Rhythm; A Musical Myth," at Jubilee Theatre
Rhythm: A Musical Myth\r\n\r\nThru Aug 22 at Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main St, FW. $16-25. 817-338-4411 or
Gad Zeus

Jubilee encapsulates the history of mankind with great Rhythm.


Early in his career, composer Stephen Sondheim wrote a musical comedy called The Frogs whose cast of characters include the Greek god Dionysus, Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw, and part of which is set in Hell. (The show has recently been revised by actor Nathan Lane and mounted on the New York stage.) Jubilee Theatre’s new original production, Rhythm: A Musical Myth, embarks on similar but even more chaotic waters: writer-composers Rudy Eastman and Joe Rogers have expanded Sondheim’s mix of ancient and modern, mortal and celestial to include the gods Vishnu, Ra, and Zeus; a disaster-plagued human race; and a little red box that looks suspiciously like it belonged to someone named Pandora. As director Eastman noted before last Saturday’s matinee: "We took the major myths and legends of the world, threw them in a pot, and mixed in some collard greens."

The result is a hot, chunky stew of musical and comic pleasures, often brought to a boil by the standing ovation that typically accompanies each performance. Rhythm: A Musical Myth marks something else in the evolution of Jubilee’s musical theater. Too often, this company’s productions are long on harmonic virtuosity and short on narrative impact. While Eastman’s Rhythm script could be accused of introducing too much business on the company’s small stage, the author ties it all together impressively and gives most of his performers either a standout role or, at least, a scene-stealing line or two. Even that oft-scorned deus ex machina -- the abrupt and convenient wrap-up by the attendant gods -- works satisfyingly within the show’s comic framework.

While there is a considerable breadth of knowledge about exotic deities and their foibles in Rhythm, audiences who approach this as some kind of primer for ancient cultures will bleed all the fun out of it. Who needs Joseph Campbell when you have two bumbling heroes named Ace (Robert Rouse) and Deuce (Kevin Halliburton)? As their introductory number "Who I Am" establishes, the pair are con artists ("I am / Therefore I scam") who peddle a magic elixir that, in the 20th century, would go by the name "bootleg liquor." Ace stumbles upon a small crimson treasure box that he can’t open; he decides to sell it on the black market. Unfortunately, that box served to plug up "the orifice of hell" as well as the wily schemes of an underworld god named Lucius (Marcellous Hayes, dudded up like Sean Combs) and his sexy consort Lovie (Crystal Phillips). This greatly displeases Zeus (Major Attaway), Ra (Eleanor T. Threatt), and Vishnu (Abel Baldazo), who carelessly create a brave but dumb Hero (Wendell L. Holden, Jr.) to pursue Ace and Deuce and retrieve the box.

If that’s not enough, throw in an overprotective Mother Nature (Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton, in giant floral hat and yellow-daisy flip-flops) and her na‘ve daughter Babygirl (Angela Watson); a grumpy old oracle named Della Phi Jones (Carolyn Hatcher) who accompanies her predictions with copyright infringement warnings; and the family of Man Kind, headed by Mr. Kind (Jesse Gause) and Mrs. Kind (Cecilia Fitzpatrick). The latter troop lugubriously across the stage at key moments, hoping for a better future at those next stops in Atlantis and Gommorrah. Through the intersecting plot lines are woven 20 -- count ’em, 20 -- songs with accompaniment by conductor Joe Rogers’ crackshot? live band, which has no problem segueing from polyrhythmic African sounds to straight blues to slinky R&B to Broadway-style balladry.

You have to catch Rhythm in person to be awed at how expertly this large cast keeps Eastman’s bulky script surging forward with light-footed joy. Much of the comic asides are tossed with an improvisational energy, creating the sensation of a giant world unfolding spontaneously before your eyes. Like most theater companies in the area, Jubilee does not possess an epic production budget, so special mention should go to costumer Barbara O’ Donoghue, who can spotlight immortals like Vishnu and Ra with just the right headdress and makes the most of robes, rags, togas, and bare feet.

I can’t heap much praise on Jubilee’s splendid core of actor-singers that hasn’t been piled in past reviews. To the principals in the cast: You know who -- and how good -- you are. It’s great to see Carolyn Hatcher return after a year’s absence; her Della Phi Jones is a relatively small but memorable role, and she gets to do a great comedic riff on Etta James’ "Stop the Wedding." ("Wait ... wait ... stop the bullshit, ya’ll.") Newcomer Angela Watson has a gorgeous crystalline voice displayed to great effect in "When I Sing." Crystal Phillips as the succubus Lovie gets to vamp like a Mae West who can actually sing on "The Best That I Can." The only legitimate criticism that could be leveled at Rhythm: A Musical Myth is that the production would move with even more agility if a handful of the tunes were shortened or cut altogether. But the next question -- "Which ones?" -- would be difficult to answer.

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