It may not have the history or the soul of the Apollo, but the Gramercy is just funky enough to provide a hospitable long-term venue for this house-rocking party piece. Sharpened up since its tryout at Amas, this nostalgic tribute to the regional greats of rhythm and blues and soul music incorporates more than 30 songs into a heart-tugging storyline.
It may not have the history or the soul of the Apollo, but the Gramercy is just funky enough to provide a hospitable long-term venue for this house-rocking party piece. Sharpened up since its tryout at Amas, this nostalgic tribute to the regional greats of rhythm and blues and soul music incorporates more than 30 songs (eight of them original) into a heart-tugging storyline about three young guys from Philadelphia, Detroit (by way of Chicago) and Memphis (by way of Nashville) who meet up at Apollo auditions in 1980 and go on to form a close-harmony singing group. Pitched to the right crowd (people who hung onto their Sam Cooke records), this one could have legs.A word, first, about the band, led by Stacey Penson on the keyboards, with Jim Hershman hefting guitar, Thom Zlabinger pounding out an assertive bass and Kenneth Crutchfield a stone killer on drums. They’re sensational. Now, on to the show… The let’s-start-a-group plot device is hardly original for an anthology musical, and auds can fill in the formula for themselves: The guys meet cute and hate each other on sight; the guys make it up and pool their talents; the guys bust up, and one of them hits the skids; the guys get together again and become superstars. But credit the creatives with two terrific variations on a familiar theme, the first established right up front, when Philly (Rodney Hicks), Detroit (Andre Garner) and Memphis (Kevin R. Free) meet outside the Apollo, competitors for the same singing job. Instead of wasting their superb singing voices on the usual sidewalk scuffling (about who sounds better or has more heart), these homesick out-of-towners brag on the virtues of their respective music traditions. This leads to lively regional singoffs (“I’ll see your Stevie and I’ll raise you Otis Redding”) in which the silky Stylistics go up against the slick Motown crowd and Southern funk-masters like Rufus Thomas. Although it’s a mystery how all three singers happen to know the same tricky dance steps (aside from long hours of drilling by choreographers Ramsey and Dockery), each man has his distinctive sound, and it’s a toe-curling thrill when mellow Philly and edgy Detroit mesh into close harmony with honey-voiced Memphis. For more subtle points about regional style, consult the footwear and head gear of Deborah A. Cheretun’s period costumes. The other smart move the creatives made was to bundle the classic material around themes that would really matter to young black males with strong connections to their hometown roots. Along with the expected songs to far-away sweethearts, there’s a strong medley (with powerful screen projections) of beaten-down fathers toiling away in the coal mines, on railroads and on chain gangs. And instead of the expected truncated salute to all the singing trios that inspired this group (who turn into a flashy act known as Unity), there’s a wonderful comic riff on the Chi-Lites, resplendent in industrial-strength Afros, crooning their hearts out on “Who’s That Lady?” and “Have You Seen Her?” Not that anyone in the aud is really going to study these picky construction points. The crowd is here for the music — and they get it good.