The immortal words of the great James Brown (“I Feel Good”) best describe audience reaction to this high-energy, low-maintenance roof-raiser. Surprisingly serviceable book (or booklet) brings three young hopefuls from their hometowns of Philadelphia, Memphis (by way of Nashville), and Detroit (by way of Chicago) to Harlem in 1980, to audition at the Apollo. Stacked with more than 30 R&B classics, plus some half-dozen new songs to grease the storyline, the feel-good pocket musical features three dynamite performers who keep in character and project tons of good humor as they sing and dance an affectionate tribute to their distinctive hometown styles.
Like the songs they lugged all the way from home, the three greenhorns who meet outside the Apollo take their character cues from the signature styles of their music-mad cities. Philly (Rodney Hicks) wears clothes only slightly out of fashion, flashes a non-threatening smile, and has a mellow baritone and easy dance moves that suit the smooth style of his hometown heroes, the Stylistics, the Bluenotes, and the Ojays. With his flashy suit and explosive temper; Detroit (Andre Garner) has the edge — and the spooky electric-tenor voice — to activate the grinding Motown sound. Memphis (Kevin R. Free) looks like a hick, in his farmboy cap and overalls; but there’s enough sly southern funk in his wide-ranging baritone to bring down the house with Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog.”
While killing time waiting for their audition callbacks, for a job only one of them can get, the three hopefuls stage an impromptu competition on the sidewalk. Sending in Sam Cooke, Isaac Hayes, Smokey and Stevie and Marvin like linebackers in a Super Bowl game — and tossing off lines like “I’ll see your Stevie and I’ll raise you Otis Redding” — is an irresistible device for making a cheering squad of the audience. (Of course, if some cat from New Orleans strolled by, he’d knock them all out flat — but let’s not complicate this friendly competition.)
Although songs like “Sweet Soul Music,” “Give Me Just a Little More Time” and “Dock of the Bay” have the resonance to stand on their own, Summers and company allow the characters to claim specific songs to illustrate their own backstories. The lovesick Detroit proves a tender killer on “Oh, Girl.” The romantic Philly pours his yearning into “Me and Mrs. Jones.” And that sex-machine Memphis makes a desperate effort to seduce a female Apollo judge with “Try a Little Tenderness.”
Getting together as a group, the three singer-dancers pull off a great comic riff on the Chi-Lites, footwork down pat and Afros out to here, with a medley of “Who’s that Lady?” and “Have You Seen Her?” On a more sober note, they segue from “Working in a Coal Mine” to “Chain Gang” (with pertinent, if muddy projections behind them) to acknowledge the hardscrabble roots of working-class singers and songwriters.
Future development of the show could do more of this smart theme-wrapping (and take the time to polish the rushed and sloppy ending, while they’re at it). But for now, this sassy, soulful show must not be allowed to skip town at the end of its too-brief run.