By Cybele Pomeroy
“My name is Luther and I’m going to sing every song I know. Come on, y’all, let’s have a party.” — Tamba Giles as Luther Vandross in Luther.
It’s a brick building in an area between Mount Royal and Mount Vernon, known to locals as Seton Hill, and if you’ve taken MLK to its end, you’ve driven right past it. 801 McCulloh Street is home to Arena Players, now in their 65th year as the oldest continuously operating African-American community theatre in the nation.
In the lobby, just as one enters, there’s a board with actor photos: this is how one discovers who is playing who in the show, as the program contains bios and staffing information, but no song list or character names. It curiously lacks a bio of Randolph Smith, who conceived and directed this musical about influential R&B singer Luther Vandross’ life, a concoction that is part biography, part jukebox musical, and part karaoke.
The show begins and I spend the first several minutes a bit lost, then there is an important bit of exposition, and I’m good for the remainder of the show. The timeline is what I will call “fluid,” and to specify any further might, I think, be revealing too much.
Director Randolph Smith constructs a lively ensemble retrospective, with visual interest and symbolic, rather than realistic, sequences. He draws strong performances from a highly gifted cast.
Tamba Giles, portraying Luther Vandross, is a talent of great measure. His vocal stylings send the opening night audience into murmurs of approval and sighs of admiration. A charming and personable performer, he handles the role, the songs and the audience with confidence and ease. Giles is supported by an ensemble cast, most impressively by Tiajuana Roundtree who plays Mary Ida Vandross.
Giles and Roundtree have beautiful chemistry and their relationship is not only believable, but so warm it’s enviable. Her vocals are noteworthy on their own, but in duet moments with Giles, she truly shines. The rest of the ensemble, physically and vocally, round out the musical without distracting from the main point, which is the music of Luther Vandross, one of the world’s great balladeers.
Technically, there are a few kinks. The body mics aren’t perfect, and in a 300-seat theater, perhaps not necessary. They provide a few moments of distraction, which (to their credit) the actors ignore. The music backing up Luther’s songs is recorded, and the effect of that is a little bit shoestring. The lighting goes beyond serviceable into fun and funky. Costuming is a little uneven: some of it works brilliantly and other bits, for reasons of tailoring or character appropriateness, are slightly ‘off.’ The set, designed also by Randolph Smith, seems oddly mismatched. It doesn’t look like any one thing and contains what appear to be discordant elements. The set, however, is exactly what the show requires, and all its varied pieces are used to good effect.
Running time: Two hours 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.