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The Blacker the Berry the Sweeter the Juice

Mario Burrell is a triple-threat talent -- singer, dancer, actor -- but his one-man show world preeming at the Zephyr does him a disservice. Burrell, who scored in Broadway's "Rent," has written an unfocused, episodic show that falls somewhere between autobiography and standup. While some of his pieces have punch on their own, few fit seamlessly together.

Mario Burrell is a triple-threat talent — singer, dancer, actor — but his one-man show world preeming at the Zephyr does him a disservice. Burrell, who scored in Broadway’s “Rent,” has written an unfocused, episodic show that falls somewhere between autobiography and standup. While some of his pieces have punch on their own, few fit seamlessly together.

Burrell initially creates an understated, engaging vibe. His a cappella rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is stirring in conjunction with fond reminiscences of his deceased father — noted Motown, Universal, 20th Century Fox and MGM publicist Walter Burrell — and he makes perfect use of the song later on as an audition piece for “Rent.” Burrell’s musical gifts outclass his comedy and would heighten excitement if more heavily emphasized throughout.

Young Mario grows as a character while recalling his dad’s prominent clients — Diana Ross (“big hair”), Smokey Robinson (“the only black man I have ever seen with green eyes”), Sidney Poitier and Cicely Tyson — and there’s a fluid sequence when he describes a school dance. He does a stylish spoof of white dancers moving wildly around and black guys maintaining their cool.

Tedium sets in as Burrell banters about his obsession with a religious channel and portrays an evangelist who inexplicably plunges into routines from “The Lion King.” Until then, we’ve been building a rapport with him as an individual, and this garish, irritating character crashes through and cuts the thread of communication.

Everything turns bleak when Burrell plays a street hustler who wants Denzel Washington/Will Smith stardom. Production’s look at this self-deluding male prostitute, who services five dudes a day at $20 an hour so he can buy a house and marry his girlfriend, is directed with authentic heat by Jemal McNeil. The vignette is too harrowing to shake off easily, and it makes the next character — a female kindergarten teacher and self-proclaimed diva — obvious, gag-ridden and grating by contrast.

The delayed climactic revelation — that his dad died of AIDS — hints at a story unexplored, and it becomes clear that the true emotional core of the show is the father-son relationship. Burrell does a beautiful version of “Father to Son,” William Finn’s song from “Falsettos” in which a dad tries to assuage his boy’s fears about manhood and sexual identity. This entire section confirms that the author is more comfortable with drama and music than humor. Burrell would do well to downplay campy, crowd-pandering comedic elements and center on the bruising heart of the material.

The Blacker the Berry the Sweeter the Juice

Zephyr Theater; 92 seats; $12 top

Production: A Zephyr Theater presentation of a play in one act, written and performed by Mario Burrell. Directed by Jemal McNeil.

Crew: Lighting and sound, McNeil. Special appearance by Kelli Kirkland. Opened and reviewed Jan. 3, 2005; runs through Feb. 14. Running time: 1 HOUR, 5 MIN.

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