Friday, September 25, 2009

A Boy And His Soul


By Colman Domingo. Directed by Tony Kelly. Chor. Ken Roberson. The Vineyard Theatre. (CLOSED)

Though more than one critic describes Colman Domingo's solo coming-of-age story as "thin," critics overlook the small flaws in the production as Domingo draws them in with his multiple characters. Other highlights in the show as cited by the critics are Ken Roberson's spontaneous-looking choreography, Tom Morse's sound design for the soul music that anchors the stories, Marcus Doshi's disco lighting, and Rachel Hauck's record-filled basement set.

Talk Entertainment A+
(Oscar E. Moore) A perfect performer in the perfect theatre with a perfect show. A Boy and His Soul is a combination of stand up confessional and juke box musical that is always interesting and entertaining. And a great tribute to his mother. Mr. Domingo has a commanding presence and is irresistible. It is impossible not to like him and go along with his family history where he sometimes plays a scene being three characters at once... It is finely directed by Tony Kelly with much attention to detail. Choreography by Ken Roberson and terrific lighting design by Marcus Doshi and great sound design by Tom Morse all help the evening more along smoothly. As smooth as all those wonderful soul songs of the 70’s.

Newsday A+
(Linda Winer) Forget how weary we are of autobiographical solos, forget the limitations of their form and the inevitable redundance of all those heartfelt coming-of-age stories. Colman Domingo's "A Boy and His Soul" makes every one of them fresh and new again- even the coming-out phone call to his doting mother. This is a marvelous 90-minute tragicomedy, which just happens to be told by one astonishing actor/dancer/singer, who brings his entire family - and friends of families - to life in his long, spidery bones.

Backstage A
(David Sheward) Even though the template has been used before—gay youth finds himself through art and tentatively comes out to his confused but ultimately accepting loved ones—Colman brings a captivating freshness to the material, staged snappily by Tony Kelly. From Aretha Franklin's cry for respect to James Brown's declaration that this is a man's world to the Stylistics' velvety love anthems, each of the songs provides a lesson, a memory, or an opportunity to do the robot, electric boogie, or pop-and-lock. Domingo is a skillful dancer and performs Ken Roberson's energetic choreography with unflagging style. This guy is like a one-man "Dancing With the Stars." He's also a talented writer. He conjures dozens of memorable word pictures by citing specific details, including the color of the tumblers from which he and his mother would drink iced tea and the paprika sprinkled on the deviled eggs packed for road trips.

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) In this show, as superbly directed by Tony Kelly (the cofounder of Thick Description in San Francisco, where Domingo's play got its start), Domingo pulses with exactly that kind of estimable celestial brightness. Whether playing the deceptively complex character of himself, or any of a dozen or so family and friends he passed on the way to becoming him, he evinces a supple gift for mimicry that invokes without joking or judgment, yet nonetheless manages to cut directly to the comic truth of everyone from drag queens to his typically unfunny parents... As Domingo pushes and dances (via Ken Roberson's whimsical Friday-night choreography) across Rachel Hauck's homey-disco set, he reveals more and more himself of as a musician and a man, until you finally feel you understand all the various components of this talented and uniquely styled artist. In the last seven minutes or so, once Domingo has completed that process and made himself the master of his music, the show starts to falter a bit, and it doesn't send you out on quite the high it keeps you at for most of an hour and a half. But that's a minor imperfection - and what LP didn't have some tiny scratch that caused a slight skip that became a cherished listening moment? Throughout the rest of the show, Domingo makes sure you hear everything loud, clear, and totally cool, and that you walk out believing that soul music is just as much a part of the family as he does. You also can't help but feel a close kinship to him when he explains what he learned from his mother: "Keep a song in your heart and you will always find your way." Domingo has obviously taken that as his own life and playwriting philosophy, and created a journey into both his heart and the heart of soul music that you'll stay happily lost in for as long as it lasts.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) Domingo, wearing a wide, megawatt smile, is a lithe, elastic performer who can move with a slow sensuality as well as with the haughty attitude of a high-flying diva. The buoyant choreography is the work of Ken Roberson. "A Boy and His Soul," directed by Tony Kelly, is told chronologically, with emphasis on musical highlights of Domingo's childhood. His introduction to Earth, Wind and Fire during an explosive summer concert, for example. "I was nine years old and I couldn't hide from the fate that soul music was about to deliver. I couldn't hide from my soul," he says. Another thing he couldn't hide from was his sexuality, unexpectedly coming out on his 21st birthday when his brother Rick took him to a strip club for a lap dance. The news travelled fast to his sister and parents. And there was a remarkable degree of acceptance, a matter-of-factness that allows the subject to ripple through the evening but never upend it.

Variety A
(Sam Thielman) Limbs flying, baritone rumbling, eyes flashing, the performer waxes eloquent on the subject of soul music. "I don't know about you, but when I was a kid I had no idea what 'You Sweet Sticky Thing' was all about," he admits. "Now I know. Kinda!" Domingo snarls that last word, grinning into it as he bites it off. It's this exact, unquenchable impulse to tie a bow around even the smallest reminiscence that frequently elevates "A Boy and His Soul" above several seasons' worth of similar one-man bioplays... When Domingo really gets down to business, though, he finds more nuanced moments that underscore his range as an actor. Everybody has seen a performer play his relatives during his coming-out story, but the moment in which Domingo remembers telling his brother Rick (played as an overweening macho crotch-grabber) he's gay is unexpectedly touching. He's prepared us for Rick to say something cruel to Jay (his youthful alter ego) or maybe just to leave him standing next to the strip club where he's chosen to out himself. But he hasn't prepared us for Rick's nonchalant validation. It's a nice moment, and not one that gets played often.

Lighting & Sound America A-
(David Barbour) Besides his attention-getting turn last season in Passing Strange, Domingo also appears on the Logo Network's Big Gay Sketch Show, where he has clearly honed his skills as a caricaturist. He cocks an arm at a 45-degree angle and tilts his head back to become his sister, loaded with attitude and spoiling for a fight. He shifts his upper body back, extends his legs, and lowers his voice a couple of octaves to become his grumpy, gravel-voiced stepfather. One of his most amusing characters sketches is of an aunt who stores various objects -- money, lottery tickets -- in her bra. These transformations are instantaneous and often last for only for the length of a single line. The rest of the time, he's a study in perpetual motion, irresistibly moving and grooving to that Motown beat; this is the rare solo show to come complete with its own choreographer -- in this case, the accomplished Ken Roberson. The storytelling is so genial, so evocative, and so touching that it's not until late in the evening that you realize that A Boy and His Soul isn't much more than a series of vivid family portraits attached to a rather weak throughlines. For this reason, the action lags a bit in the last ten minutes or so, when Domingo struggles to find an ending. It may be very well be that young JJ's childhood was entirely too happy for the purposes of drama. Still, as staged by Tony Kelly, A Boy and His Soul brings to life a world of feisty, funny characters who live by rules -- and a soundtrack -- of their own.

TheaterMania A-
(Andy Propst) Once the performer settles into a memory, Boy truly flies as he assumes a host of characters, delivering each with remarkable specificity. Particularly enjoyable are Domingo's renderings of his good ole boy stepfather, his sassy sister, and his somewhat thuggish brother. Domingo often shifts between these characters within the blink of the eye, and he's even able to create with remarkable ease his brother and sister sharing an imagined phone call. He brings these characters to life in a variety of "snapshots," including a particularly moving childhood memory of sitting in the backyard with his mother -- a sequence enhanced enormously by Marcus Doshi's gorgeously atmospheric lighting. Similarly, his memory of attending an Earth Wind and Fire concert delivers goosebumps. Meanwhile, a trip to a gay bar proves to contain one of the biggest laughs in the piece. As Domingo begins to come out to his family, the production develops some true emotional heft even as it retains his deliciously self-aware sense of humor.

The New York Times B+
(Charles Isherwood) He possesses a voice of remarkable range and dexterity. The burly masculine presence of his stepfather, Clarence, is vividly evoked in a dark booming baritone tinged with a gruff warmth. His mother, Edie, speaks with a refined hush that touchingly suggests the ambitions to culture she had to leave behind when she left college after becoming pregnant, and which she worked to instill and encourage in her son. His sister, Averie, is a borderline comic stereotype, the sassy girl with the tongue that slashes; Mr. Domingo doesn’t really even need to describe the hair and fingernails. He even evokes smaller characters with precise diction and intonation, like the perfect silky pitch of a radio D.J. sending smooth love songs out into the steamy summer night with a sexual purr. The writing can be scattered, but it bubbles along amiably as J. J., as Mr. Colman’s character is called by his family, recalls the way the music of the time infused their lives with a sense of belonging to a wider culture. In our niche-oriented musical era, with everyone attuned to the private mix tapes on their own iPods, that sense has mostly evaporated; the outpouring of nostalgia at the death of Michael Jackson points up how fragmented the culture of pop music has become. “A Boy and His Soul,” which is crisply directed by Tony Kelly and is enlivened by the slick choreography by Ken Roberson, slides into some worn grooves when Mr. Domingo moves into the story of his grappling with his sexuality. The writing remains lively and funny — his sister calls J. J. in high dudgeon, snippy and snappy not because he’s gay but because he told their brother first — yet the parameters of this narrative have become so familiar that it is hard to bring anything truly new to it.

The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Domingo's experiences, whether it's his struggles with homosexuality or his mother Edie's mortality, aren't all that extraordinary.
What gives the show its unique groove is the star himself and his contagious enthusiasm for the soul, R&B and disco tunes that became the soundtrack to his life. Domingo, who was impressive in "Passing Strange," is commanding and endearing, whether he's acting, singing along to the music (he asks you to, as well) or shaking what his mama (and choreographer Ken Roberson) gave him. He's also an ace shape-shifter, morphing from playing himself to various relatives, with a change in his voice or body language or a telling gesture. Two fingers raised in a tight V comes to signal sassy big sister Averie, who was forever puffing Newports.

CurtainUp B+
(Julia Furay) A Boy and His Soul, written by Domingo and directed by Tony Kelly, is essentially a memoir of Domingo's childhood in 1970s Philadelphia. As he tells us at the show's start, this stroll through memory lane came about after he rediscovered his parents' abandoned record collection at his childhood home. As framing devices go, it's a little lame, but it effectively brings us to the meat of this staged memoir: Domingo's tale of growing up gay in the inner city, and his enthusiastic impersonations of his family members. From his sassy chain-smoking sister Averie to his salt-of-the-earth stepfather Clarence, Domingo's family is certainly a charismatic bunch. Domingo has brought them to life vividly, with gleefully cartoonish mimicry and witty writing. Although some of these family vignettes have a somewhat too saccharine feel, they are the show's unquestionable highlight. Director Tony Kelly has kept the pace fast and the staging varied. Scenic designer Rachel Hauck's crowded basement set feels a little underused and over-detailed, but Marcus Doehl's lighting amplifies the emotions of Domingo's tale considerably. special mention should be given to Tom Morse's expert sound design.

Talk Entertainment A+ 14; Newsday A+ 14; Backstage A 13; Talkin' Broadway A 13; AP A 13; Variety A 13; Lighting & Sound America A- 12; TheaterMania A- 12; The New York Times B+ 11; The Daily News B+ 11; Curtain Up B+ 11; TOTAL: 137/11 = 12.45 (A-)

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