Arts » Theater

Hatched and Dispatched

Great Lakes' blues musical delivers flashy but synthetic joy.

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Jump, jive & gel: A well-groomed, well-glittered cast member.
  • Jump, jive & gel: A well-groomed, well-glittered cast member.

Thunder Knocking on the Door is a gaudy showboat, a blues musical paddling its way to Broadway with the ferocity of a heat-seeking torpedo.

Between the strut and sashay of Keb' Mo' and Anderson Edwards's blues-and-rock-puréed-in-a-blender score, Keith Glover's book makes half-hearted attempts at forging a new myth with odd substitutions: the Delta in place of Arthurian England, the blues for chivalry, a guitar for Excalibur, and a bad boy singer in red satin shirt in place of Sir Lancelot.

Presently docked at the Great Lakes Theater Festival, this veritable Hallmark pageant saturates the Ohio Theatre in a year's worth of holiday celebrations rolled into one. Colored lights frantically blink each entrance and exit like a Christmas tree having a nervous breakdown. Swivel-hipped actors/blues singers take turns gobbling their musical exaltations like privileged Thanksgiving turkeys -- disguised in peacock feathers to avoid the slaughter. Fourth of July explosions rendered by phantasmagorical entertainers direct from Hades light up the sky. Thunder out of Labor Day air shows rocks the balcony.

If any Broadway sugar daddies still exist, this "bluesical" could make for a sound investment, because, like the laughing lady at the old fun house, it beats its spectators into jolly submission. Admittedly, some spectators flee in terror, but the vast majority give in, do the standing ovation bit, wipe the tear, buy the souvenir T-shirt, and exclaim something about a "raised roof."

Along with the flash and ever-flowing adrenaline, there is a curious side effect: A strange form of amnesia takes place. The show is simultaneously repetitive and amorphous.

Inevitably, it all starts to blur and crumble like an aged reel of nitrate film. Suddenly we're bewildered guests who have stayed too long at that 'round-about-midnight jam session and had one bottle of beer too many.

By Act Two, the hangover has set in. We begin to wonder how an event that started as sleek and snazzy as Lena Horne at the Copa could turn into a three-hundred-pound floozie -- perhaps it's too eager to please, has too many feathers, strives for too much synthetic joy, and is determined to light every darkened corner with sunshine. The blind sister has to have her sight restored; the disenchanted, wastrel son has to see the light; and the damned blues singer not only gets his humanity restored, but gets the ex-blind girl in time for the final clinch. Too much sugar turns the blues pink.

The purveyor of this tinsel is director/book writer Keith Glover. Scene designer David Gallo gives us a spiral yellow brick road more appropriate for The Wiz. The upside-down pyramid on top of the set is a puzzlement, but the cast is the best that money can buy for a pre-Broadway boat ride. Terry Burrell makes for a hot jazz mama with a Dinah Washington moan. Marva Hicks does a hot torch burn in her red satin evening gown. Kevyn Morrow, the misbegotten blues Lancelot, does a Little Richard sans the swish. Peter Jay Fernandez, the satanic bluester, and Doug Eskew elicit the high energy and personality necessary to keep a blues musical from sinking.

We'd give you a plot synopsis for all of this, but to be perfectly honest, we're still somewhat at sea ourselves. Be reassured, however, that, by final curtain, most of the story's loose ends are tied, and as far as we can fathom, everything is neatly hatched and dispatched.

Keith A. Joseph can be reached at kjoseph@clevescene.com.

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