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Twisted Melodies
by Kelvin Roston, Jr.
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
April 23, 2016

Kelvin Roston, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Kelvin Roston, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

A biographical one-person show, written by the show’s star, is an ideal way for a talented writer and performer to showcase his talents while also paying tribute to a notable person. The latest production from the Black Rep, Twisted Melodies, is an excellent example of this kind of show. Featuring the remarkable performance of writer/star Kelvin Roston, Jr., the play tells the story of legendary R&B singer Donny Hathaway by taking the audience on an immersive trip into Hathaway’s life and mind.

The play introduces the audience to Hathaway (Roston) on a pivotal day in his life in 1979. After a troubling recording session, he’s back in his room at the Essex House Hotel in New York. Plagued by hallucinations attributed to paranoid schizophrenia, Hathaway recounts the story of his life and music, engaging the audience as if we are a benevolent hallucination, unlike the more hostile voices and visions that haunt him. He tells the story of his childhood in St. Louis and his upbringing in the home of his strict but loving and devout grandmother, who insisted that Hathaway spend hours practicing piano and developing his musical gifts. The story continues into Hathaway’s adolescence and young adulthood, where he attended Howard University in Washington, DC and eventually began his musical career. He tells of his marriage, his musical collaborations with Roberta Flack and others, and his experience with mental illness that grew to dominate his adult life. The play is structured so that we don’t just hear the story, though. We are put into Hathaway’s head, hearing what he hears and seeing what he sees, with the troubling, confusing and terrifying sounds and sights realized by means of Rick Sims’s superb sound design, Sean Savoie’s stunning lighting, and Mark Wilson’s vividly realized projections.  All the while, Hathaway’s music is used to tell his story, expertly played and sung by Roston.

Roston didn’t just write this show–he is the show. The first-rate technical aspects of this play, including the excellent set by Jim Burwinkel, serve as the backdrop for this first-rate performance. The amiable, personable Roston presents a Donny Hathaway whose talent is clearly at the forefront, as are his struggles. His battle with paranoid schizophrenia and his reluctance to take the drugs to treat it–since their side effects can be extreme–is portrayed with clarity and intensity. Roston’s musicality is also on clear display, with his smooth, soulful voice and impressive keyboard skills presenting Hathaway’s music remarkably. He does a great job of sounding like Hathaway as well, with strong performances of songs such as “The Ghetto”, “She Is My Lady” “Giving Up”, “A Song For You”, and perhaps most impressively, singing both parts of his duet with Flack, “The Closer I Get to You”. Hathaway’s joy in his music is made clear, as is his fear, desperation, and search for hope. As Hathaway’s journey takes him back and forth from hope to despair, Roston powerfully portrays every aspect of that journey.

Twisted Melodies is a tour-de-force performance and a superbly crafted theatrical piece, with lighting that contributes to Hathaway’s feelings of isolation and fear, inventive use of projections, and excellent sound that incorporates recorded music that blends seamlessly with Roston’s live performance. It’s a compelling and sometimes disturbing look into the mind of a brilliant but troubled musician, and it’s not to be missed.

Kelvin Roston, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Kelvin Roston, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Twisted Melodies at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 1, 2016.

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