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Love on Lay-a-Way

David E. Tolbert is the acknowledged kingpin of the legit genre known as "urban inspiration," having scripted, produced and helmed one a year for more than a decade. His current tuner, "Love on Lay-a-Way," follows his well-worn formula of dissecting romantic angst, focusing on the machinations of insecure city dwellers dealing with commitment issues. Talbert's predictable, sitcom-level plot twists are mitigated by a generally competent ensemble, enlivened by the driving R&B-tinged score of Robbie Lewis. Undermining the proceedings are lackluster production values, especially the woefully inadequate onstage miking that distorts the dialogue of some characters while rendering others nearly inaudible.

With:
Monique - Deborah Cox Anthony - Mel Jackson Kalif - Mykel Shannon Renzo - Buddy Lewis Reggie - Chico Benymon Willanetta - Cassi Davis Epiphany - Joi Campbell Ms. Mary - Marla Gibbs Tedaryl - Ulysses Garrett Man Man - Robbie Lewis Jr.

David E. Tolbert is the acknowledged kingpin of the legit genre known as “urban inspiration,” having scripted, produced and helmed one a year for more than a decade. His current tuner, “Love on Lay-a-Way,” follows his well-worn formula of dissecting romantic angst, focusing on the machinations of insecure city dwellers dealing with commitment issues. Talbert’s predictable, sitcom-level plot twists are mitigated by a generally competent ensemble, enlivened by the driving R&B-tinged score of Robbie Lewis. Undermining the proceedings are lackluster production values, especially the woefully inadequate onstage miking that distorts the dialogue of some characters while rendering others nearly inaudible.

Tolbert attacks the often-tenuous nature of male/female bonding from three perspectives. Commitment-starved Monique (Deborah Cox) has been living in unwedded bliss for more than four years and is ready to step to the altar with smooth-talking but always side-stepping Anthony (Mel Jackson).

Middle-aged Willanetta (Cassi Davis) has had a life-changing spiritual conversion that is wreaking havoc on her relationship with longtime lover Renzo (Buddy Lewis). And young single mom Epiphany (Joi Campbell) is struggling to find a balance in her relationship with Reggie (Chico Benymon) and her needy young son Man Man (Robbie Lewis Jr.).

Casting a comically jaundiced eye on all these shenanigans is life-wizard Ms. Mary, played to the hilt by TV vet Marla Gibbs.

As in many of his previous works, Talbert places the burden of social responsibility on the women, leaving the men to wallow in carnal self-interest, reducing much of the gender interaction to the level of a UPN sitcom. On the plus side, it does offer an outlet for Cox, who played the title role in Broadway’s “Aida,” to soar through the show opening, “Love & Commitment.” As the fools in love, Jackson (a regular on “Living Single”), Benymon (Andre on UPN’s “Half and Half”) and Lewis acquit themselves quite well in essentially two-dimensional roles. Jackson is particularly magnetic as marriage-shy Anthony, willing to commit to Monique in every way possible as long as it doesn’t involve a wedding ring.

Designed to travel light by Leon King, the production’s flimsy sets are swallowed by the Wilshire Theater’s cavernous stage area. A smaller venue would mean less audience capacity, but would result in heightened theatrical veracity. Fortunately, the inconsistent acoustics don’t lessen the dynamic impact of music director/keyboardist Robbie Lewis and his hard-driving seven-member pit band.

Love on Lay-a-Way

Wilshire Theater; 1,200 seats; $68 top

Production: A Soul Theater Series presentation of a musical play in two acts, book by David E. Talbert, music by Robbie Lewis. Directed by Talbert, music director, Lewis.

Crew: Sets, Leon King; lights, Walter Glover Jr.; costumes, Rahvaunia L. Johnson. Opened and reviewed Nov. 17, 2004; closes Nov. 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: Monique - Deborah Cox Anthony - Mel Jackson Kalif - Mykel Shannon Renzo - Buddy Lewis Reggie - Chico Benymon Willanetta - Cassi Davis Epiphany - Joi Campbell Ms. Mary - Marla Gibbs Tedaryl - Ulysses Garrett Man Man - Robbie Lewis Jr.

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