Tom Strini

Rep’s Soultime at the Apollo

By - Sep 13th, 2009 11:51 pm
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Melanie McCullough, as Dinah Washington

Melanie McCullough, as Dinah Washington

The story of the Apollo Theater, the rowdy, holy shrine of African-American pop culture since 1934, is an epic. Kevin Ramsey tries to tell that story, from Butterbeans and Susie to Lena Horne and Moms Mabley in the 1930s to Motown and Aretha Franklin and James Brown in the 1970s, in a revue that opened over the weekend at The Rep’s Stackner Cabaret.

The subject overwhelms Ramsey’s vehicle, the intimate, two-person Soultime At the Apollo. He squeezed too much into it, notably torrents of informational monologue  that too often sound like History Channel voice-overs. (“The entertainment that happened within these walls spread to redefine culture worldwide etc. etc. etc.”) Melanie McCullough and C.E. Smith hastened to articulate all of this at high speed. That led to a good deal of tongue-twisting on Smith’s part and made the show feel frenetic. Better to get down to 90 minutes by trimming the show than by speeding it up.

At the outset, Ramsey goes to some lengths to develop the idea that Smith is an Apollo basement functionary who’s seen it all and McCullough is the singing, dancing angel who shows up to grant his dream of performing. This conceit, tucked in with the historical verbiage, is confusing before it just sort of disappears somewhere in Act 2. Why is it there at all?

It only adds a few pounds of theatrical baggage to performers facing the daunting task of not only singing in radically different styles, but also mimicking icons from the past.

McCullough struggled to be Billie Holiday in the difficult “Good Morning Heartache” and “Strange Fruit,” came pretty close to Lena Horne’s velvet vocalism in “Honeysuckle Rose” and was an electrifying Aretha Franklin in “Chain of Fools” and “Respect.” I admired the way she threw her lovely, lanky body into every character and each fleeting moment, even vulgar comedy bits that run against the grain of her classy beauty. (Costume designer Holly Payne showed off that beauty to stunning effect with several knockout gowns and wigs.)

C.E. Smith, as Soultime

C.E. Smith, as Soultime

As the show went on and Smith got to drop the Soultime-the-Old-Janitor routine, he blossomed. Smith nailed Cab Calloway in “Minnie the Moocher,” and that’s no small feat. It takes nerve to take on James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a  Brand New Bag”; Smith did not merely survive, he conquered.

The two performers, with help from singing pianist and music director Monica Dillon, sustained energy throughout and delivered the goods on most of the 43 songs. I just wish the show were better paced and organized. Smith and McCullough had to pedal fast  every second of the way, because the show itself builds no momentum and is uphill all the way. Sunday night, they were the hardest-working people in show business.

What: Soultime at the Apollo

Where: The Milwaukee Repertory Theater‘s Stackner Cabaret; 414- 224-9490

When: Tuesday through Sunday; and then Wednesdays through Sundays through Nov. 8

How Much: $30-$45

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