PROP 8 AND THE 1965 CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT CROSS THE RIVER IN THIS NEW MUSICAL
AND BRIDGE GENERATIONS.
Selma 65th anniversary (1965) meets Oakland 2008, in the world premiere of an original musical BRIDGES at the Berkeley Playhouse now on stage through March 6th at the Julia Morgan Stage. This a powerful tale of two stories, both based on love and faith. Directed by Karen Altree Piemme, with lyrics and book by Cheryl L. Davis (2009 Writers' Guild Award winner and Daytime Emmy Award nominee for As the World Turns), and music by Douglas J. Cohen (Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics for “Children's Letters to God”). Piemme has assembled a stunning cast to bring this important local work to the Bay Area. The civil rights era voting rights for African-Americans is the main theme for the 60’s side of the story. While in Oakland the struggle is Prop 8 and gay marriage, the two issues parallel with family love, faith and church.
BPH Artistic Director Elizabeth McKoy commissioned the project writing team in 2012 to bring the concept to page. Writer Davis says "the decision was made to connect 1965 Selma with 2008 Oakland, and to tell both stories through one family.” McKoy says, "Seven years ago my daughter, and I watched a movie called Selma Lord Selma, which made a very powerful impact on her. She was so curious and ultimately inspired by the story that I knew this was the seed of an important theatre journey." BRIDGES centers on the story of a multiracial family in the Bay Area celebrating their triumphs and joys, but also struggling with their growing pains. Its' matriarch recalls growing up in Selma, Alabama, at the height of the civil rights movement, and reveals a secret that could change the family forever. The present day family is still dealing with issues of race and identity long after their Grandma Francine marched to Birmingham from Selma in 1965, when as a young woman she boldly joined a movement to fight for her civil rights. Decades later, another young woman faces her own battle for equality. As their stories collide across time and distance, each come to terms with who she is in the love and pain of a changing world.
The love stories are the heart of this musical from Reverend Robert Henderson's (the impressive Nicolas Bearde) relationship with his gay teenage daughter to learning his Mom's secrets at the march on Selma. The high school sophomore Franki is played by capable Nandi Drayton who captures this teen’s struggles as the minister's daughter, in her excellent song “Hello, Grandma”. Her younger brother Eddie is skillfully played by young Caleb Meyers. The first Act opening moments can get a bit pop compared to the powerful gospel spirit in the Selma parallel. Franki and Eddie are millennials but as with the song “What Group Are You In” can be a bit “high school musical”. The reverend's daughter's interest in the Queer Straight Alliance club opens a new friendship with Jasmine played by a strong willed KaylaMay Suarez that sparks a predictable innocent romance. Franki's white mom played by Dana Lewenthal deals with her son's questions about being black; mom wants him to remain mix racial. They both have a cute song “Mean Cookies” about bullying.
Stage left is the Selma set, a bridge arch, designed by Brian Watson. The stunning set is highlighted by two bridges, Selma on the left and the icon Golden Gate Bridge on the right. Piemme makes it easy for us to see the time parallel by setting the action for each era under one of the bridges. Francine Williams, played by the elegant Janelle Lasalle, is attempting to hide her white boyfriend in the height of the Civil Rights Movement. We meet Anthony Rollins-Mulliens as the Minister, who shows off his excellent tones in a number of Gospel inspired numbers.”Walk in The Shade of The Lord” is an uplifting hymnal song by the Selma cast.
Francine's white suitor is Bobby Cohen played smartly by Joshua Marx, who is handsome and dashing. Lasalle and Marx are charming in “This Is Our Dance” and are both in style in Liz Martin's costumes. Her work is most effective with the period look, using tan and brown tones to match the times and set. Music Director David Aaron Brown brings his company to rousingly fill the Julia Morgan theatre, in the number “This I Will Overcome” both in the first act and the touching finale. Mark Thomas dramatic light design keeps the sets in a constant soft mood. “March with the Aid of the Load” is a highlight production point in the show when the Selma cast confronts the police and the lighting becomes a character in the play. Protesters march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, hands locked with hope as the lights fade, and masked police are in the shadows. Choreographer, Pjay Phillips, brings his cast upfront for many of the gospel-heavy numbers. The musical does not have standard dance moments yet the flow from past to present is smooth and important. Brandon Davis flawless sound design includes uplifting choirs filling the rafters at the Julia Morgan Arts Center.
2008 Oakland seems shallow in comparison to the events in 1965 and the pain of those times. Nick Kumamoto’s important projections tell both stories effectively, including the terror of both the Prop 8 campaign and riots in Montgomery. The two Bridges reflect those images. Local favorite Amanda King plays an important double cast role, from past to present she is Grandma and Mother Clara, and carries this musical's soulful base. King's voice is commanding in both roles and her comic sardonic sign of hope and change. A highlight of the contrast of 1965 and present time is the car ride Mom, Daughter and Grandma have. King and Lasalle have perfect timing as they switch between the time warp of characters. Phillip Percy Williams is also a stand out playing roles in both era’s, Paul and Louis - a civil rights defender and a gay choir director set ton changing the rules in Oakland, Ca. Others in the cast that are a high lights include Mia Ashley, Jacqueline Dennis, skilled Sam Jackson, Dana Lewenthal, Barry Martin, Melissa Martinez, Calab Meyers, Charles Peoples III, Maurice Andre San-Chez, Brandon Thomas, and Scottie Woodard.
The heart, soul and theme of the 2 hour 20 minute musical is the bridge and its empowering arc that explores our country's past and present - how far we have come, how far we have to go, and the bridges that still need to be crossed. Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley, to our first Black President, the poignant moments of BRIDGES makes this a must see this spring. The ending in not the end - there's so much left undone and the hope for equality is still a struggle. BPH brings this important new musical to the Bay Area and my hope is with some work still needed that it makes its way to more cities and or New York or even the West End. It is an accomplished work by a first rate production team headed by Founding Artistic Director, Elizabeth McKoy, and producer AD, Daren A.C. Carollo. It is an important theatre event for Bay Area Theatre. McKoy says “I started the Playhouse with the goal of telling musical stories that would make audiences think and feel and connect to others and the world. New works are essential for a theatre company like ours because music is the perfect language to bridge generations in storytelling” Do not miss BRIDGES.
The Berkeley Playhouse Presents
A World Premiere
'BRIDGES: A NEW MUSICAL'
By Cheryl L. Davis and Douglas J. Cohen
Commissioned by BPH Founder Elizabeth McKoy
Directed by Karen Altree Piemme, Music Director David Aaron Brown
Through: March 6, 2016
Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes; one intermission
Tickets: $23-$60; 510-845-8542, berkeleyplayhouse.org
Photo’s by BEN KRANTZ