Saturday, February 12, 2022

Review of "The Mountaintop"


The Mountaintop is a fictional rendering by playwright Katori Hall that takes place on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.  Set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, this two-person show is a captivating and affective piece of theater.


The production opens in a small, disheveled hotel room.  King (Chaz Rose) is ruminating about the weighty undertakings he needs to address while in Memphis to support the sanitation workers strike.  Seeking a cup of coffee, he calls for room service and soon a young, attractive maid, Camae (Shavonna Banks) arrives. The two quickly develop a very comfortable rapport.  The conversations between the sassy, care-free hotel worker and the revered civil rights leader range from portentous themes to more run-of-the-mill topics.  They become friendly and playful until a surprise twist adds a more otherworldly and meditative end.


Playwright Katori Hall took inspiration for the play from King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before his assassination.  In that address he declared, "We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.”  An eerie premonition the night before his death.  Hall has crafted the show to allow the characters to discuss and debate numerous highly charged issues of the day, including race, the civil rights movement, and political turbulence.  King also confides to Camae about his misgivings, fears and even death.  


Hall took a lot of push back for humanizing the spiritual leader - showing “warts and all” - but the portrayal, in a fictional manner, allows for a fuller picture of King the human being. Some of the character monologues approach preachiness, but the overall impact is engrossing and powerful.


Chaz Rose is a natural to play Martin Luther King, Jr.  His booming voice finely enriches his oratorical remarks and flourishes, but the strength in his performance is the manner he presents the clergyman as an ordinary man who changed a nation.  The actor convincingly conveys the multiple layers to King’s persona as he struggles with the weighty issues of the day.  He is both confident in his on-going work but, at times, questioning his resolve and actions.


Shavonna Banks brings spunk and a street-smart toughness to the role of Camae.  She is nobody’s fool and quickly develops a well-rounded portrayal of her character.  Her patter can occasionally be too quick, but once she settles into the role, the easy going, yet fitful rapport she has with the civil rights giant becomes more natural. The actress demonstrates her acting range as the frisky, soul-searching banter in the beginning of the play turns more solemn and supernatural.


Working within the premise of playwright Katori Hall’s fictional scenario, Director Gayle Samuels deftly creates an interaction between the two protagonists that is believable and organic.  She effectively incorporates enough busyness and creative machinations to keep the momentum of the two-person show flowing without going stale.  She skillfully directs a seamless transition between the two segments of the show, beautifully and artfully sequencing to the transcendental conclusion.


Lindsay Fuori’s set design has a claustrophobic and disheveled authenticity.  RJ Romeo’s lighting and sound design, especially with the lightning and thunderstorm raging outside the hotel room - almost Biblical in its rage - is extremely effective.   His projection array at the show’s conclusion is compelling and haunting.


The Mountaintop, playing at the Music Theatre of Connecticut through February 20, 2022.  Information and tickets are at


Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Review of "Five Guys Named Moe"

It may be cold and snowy outside, but inside Playhouse on Park, their production of Five Guys Named Moe is hot, hot, hot.  The jukebox musical, a celebration of the swing jazz artist Louis Jordan, is splashy, high-spirited and full of rollicking tunes.


The premise of the show is simple.  Nomax, a young man in his 20’s, arrives home drunk, having spent the evening with his now ex-girlfriend.  Bemoaning his circumstances while lazing in front of his old-fashioned radio, he is suddenly surrounded by the Five Guys who have magically appeared through the broadcasting device.  Through non-stop songs and energetic dance numbers the men teach Nomax life lessons about love, loss, and reconciliation.


The songs of Five Guys Named Moe are from the hits of songwriter and swing jazz artist Louis Jordan.  The multi-talented composer and performer was one of the most successful African-American artists in the 1930’s through 1950’s.  He has been cited as an early influencer of rock ‘n roll and, according to a biography, “was a leading practitioner, innovator and popularizer of jump blues, a swinging, up-tempo, dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, blues and boogie-woogie.”  Many of the over two dozen songs are exuberant, snappy and infectious.  Other compositions are bluesy and reflective.  Jordan was known for call back numbers and a few are included in the production.  Warning - get ready to stand and boogie in this show.

The cast from Five Guys Named Moe - photo by Meredith Longo


The five very talented performers who make up the strikingly entertaining Moe ensemble are a highly syncopated group, with dazzling harmonies and dynamic jumping jive.  The interplay between the men is playful, brotherly, and full of jubilation.  Individually, each actor commands the spotlight with sassy singing chops, smooth moves, and a dash of humor that keeps the musical percolating at a feverish pitch.  The group consists of Arnold Harper II (Eat Moe), Jacquez Linder-Long (Four Eyed Moe), Darren Lorenzo (Big Moe), Devin Price (Little Moe), and Josh Walker (No Moe).  Marcus Canada (Nomax) winningly plays the foil to his new friends.  He is unsure, sometimes combative, and a bit awkward as he attempts to keep up with the frenetic pace of the Moes.


Director/choreographer Brittney Griffin delivers a show with verve and intoxicating energy.  Her choreography is highly inventive, full of vitality and athleticism.   She has the performers constantly in motion, utilizing every inch of the small Playhouse stage.  Ms. Griffin does a skillful job moderating the production between high octane scenes, more circumspect and sentimental numbers, and audience call-back chants.  There is also plenty of humor injected into the show.

The cast from Five Guys Named Moe - photo by Meredith Longo


The six-piece band, led by Musical Director Dexter Pettaway, Sr., is a tight knit assemblage of musicians that can keep the beat at a sizzling pace or mellow the groove for the more melancholy numbers.


The whimsical set, by Scenic Designer James Rotondo III, resembles an oversized 1930’s radio, and is positioned at the back of the stage.  The band is housed behind its see through, curtained facade.  Lighting Designer Marcella Barbeau embellishes the production with well-timed mood lighting.  Occasionally, the sound mix was off, leaving it hard to hear some of the performers clearly.  I’m sure, now that Sound Designer Ethan Gueldenzopf has had the occasion to hear the show in front of a raucous and enthusiastic crowd, as opposed to an empty rehearsal hall, the necessary adjustments will be made. The costumes by Vilinda McGregor, while basic men’s wear in Act I, shimmered during the Act II nightclub scene.


Five Guys Named Moe, boisterous, lively jukebox musical, playing at Playhouse onPark in West Hartford through February 27, 2022.