Few contemporary musicals deliver satisfying dramatic action along with a pop score that stands on its own merits, transcending the jukebox to flesh out characters and a story that do more than pull us along until the next song. Will Power’s “Five Fingers of Funk” just about gets us there, in an intriguing debut at Minneapolis’ Children’s Theater Company, staged as part of the theater’s programming aimed at teen audiences. Evoking the spirit of 1970s American funk while portraying the journey of a group of young people through high school, this is a work that frequently delivers memorable tunes while convincing us its characters are worth caring about.
After a silly monologue by the mythic Dr. Funk (Edwin Lee Gibson), the action settles into the garage of bassist Big Ced (Keith A. Hale). The five-piece band launches into the title song, a game, passable adaptation of vintage Parliament-Funkadelic (Power collaborates with Justin Ellington on the show’s compositions). Five Fingers are indeed a garage band, but here the actors play their instruments with convincing enthusiasm.
Much of the drama centers on matters of love and vice, the eternal concerns of pop groups. Singer and leader Poppo (Jahi Kearse, full of tension and multiple agendas) gradually descends into the world of the streets, while Big Ced and keyboardist Ruby (Traci M. Allen) negotiate the fits and starts of young love.
Along the way we also have the growing radicalization of drummer DP (Namir Smallwood) and his mounting antipathy for the group’s sole white member Falcon (Matt Rein). A number of weighty issues get raised, in other words, and while their treatment doesn’t deliver profundity, we are nonetheless convinced that Big Ced’s garage was a microcosm for the times.
The tunes are varied, representing some of the show’s high points. Allen duets with Greta Oglesby as Big Ced’s mother on the simmering “Stand Up,” and both Allen and Hale display soulful, resonant voices.
By the end, when Five Fingers makes it big, we are almost left wondering why we had such a good time. The music is solid, if not exceptional, and the action is delivered with integrity, if not extraordinary originality. This new show from Power (“The Seven”) has the feel of a trial run, a first stab at a work that captures its time while seeking to provide the Zen koan implicit in every great bass line.