Thunder, in this case, is one Marvell Thunder, a supernatural, shape-shifting, competitive trickster who has surrendered a good bit of his humanity to act as the spirit of the blues. Played by the magnetic Clifton Walker III in Creative Cauldron’s current production of the Keith Glover/Keb’ Mo’/Anderson Edwards show, Thunder is, as tricksters tend to be, simultaneously charismatic and dangerous, though he ultimately displays a romantic side foreign to a Coyote or Raven.
Thunder is explicitly not the devil, though the show’s main plot device bears some resemblance to that of the ’70s Charlie Daniels Band hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Some years prior, Thunder was defeated in a blues guitar contest by Jaguar Dupree, Sr., who died shortly afterwards, leaving behind his widow, the fittingly-named Good Sister (Kelli Blackwell), his brother Dregster (Greg Watkins), and fraternal twins Jaguar, Jr. (Bryan Jeffrey) and Glory (Shayla S. Simmons). Thunder has just defeated Jaguar, Jr., in another such contest, claiming as his prize one of the blue, tree branch-infused guitars that Jaguar, Sr. had created. He arrives at the Dupree household coveting the second of these guitars, owned by Glory, whom he promptly challenges to another musical contest.
In Glover’s rickety, meandering script, that household often seems a cliché out of a sitcom. The dialogue, in sometimes overly lengthy book scenes that could have benefited from tighter editing, only sporadically rises above this level. The family matriarch, Good Sister, mourning her three deceased husbands, resists the kindly Dregster’s patient entreaties to marry her. Jaguar, Jr., is a feckless, often over-the-top, timorous young man wasting his musical soul on a quest for crass commercial success, pending a late transformation. Dregster and Jaguar, Jr., get drunk on homebrew. Glory is blind, the result of an accident following hard upon her being left at the altar by an unworthy suitor.
The production’s portrayal of Glory’s blindness is problematic. Playing a blind person credibly needs more than a pair of dark glasses. It calls for close attention to body language, modes of movement in a familiar environment (emphatically not involving being pushed from place to place from behind by sighted people), and the fact that impaired vision need not equate to depression or dowdiness. The DMV has a large and vigorous blindness community; directors of shows involving blind characters would be well advised to consult some of its members as technical advisors.
As an inducement to the guitar contest he seeks, Thunder provisionally restores Glory’s sight, at which point she sheds her frumpy housedress in favor of one of costume designer Margie Jervis’s deliciously sexy gowns and becomes instantly attracted to Thunder, who finds her newly-manifested beauty compelling. Can true love and musical authenticity be far behind?
It is the show’s music that saves the day. The lively, eclectic blues/R&B/pop score gives the singers and music director Elisa Rossman’s excellent band plenty of range to display their considerable talents. Walker, possessed of a powerful tenor voice, gets a show-stopping blues number, “Even When You Win, Sometimes You Lose.” Jeffrey, whose dance talent and training show to fine advantage, shines with the hip-swiveling “Big Money.” Watkins, displaying a warm baritone, and Blackwell, with the purest and strongest blues voice of the group, join forces for “Believe Me,” and Good Sister resolves her emotional situation in the touching “Willing to Go.” In duets with the relatively smaller-voiced Simmons, both singers (“See Through Me” for Walker and “I Wish I Knew” for Blackwell) show their ability to blend. Indeed, duets, trios, and ensemble numbers are a real strength for the score, involving beautiful harmonies as well as opportunities to showcase each singer’s abilities.
Oddly for a show focusing on guitar contests, nobody actually plays the guitar on stage (the blue guitars are props), and even in the climactic encounter at the mythical crossroads between Glory and Thunder there are only rather brief riffs supplied by the band. As staged, the contest seems one more of movement than music.
In addition to her costumes – Walker and Jeffrey, as well as Simmons, get some stunning outfits – Jervis also designed the set, featuring a stage right bare tree festooned with multicolored lights and a light-permeable set of slats representing the Dupree house. Appropriate to the show, the set is a magical realist rather than naturalistic take on backwoods 1966 Alabama. For a small, black box theater, Creative Cauldron’s space is well supplied with lighting instruments, which James Morrison uses effectively in a highly colorful, active to the point of busy, design.
This is not the first musical in which the score must overcome difficulties in the book, nor will it be the last. Co-directors Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith, as well as the rest of the company, clearly love the material, and the group’s passion for the show and its vibrant music make the evening enjoyable.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.