Comin’ to ya on a dusty road/Good lovin’ I got a truck load.
Those opening lyrics to “Soul Man” — penned by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, immortalized by Sam & Dave (and later by the Blues Brothers) — are indelibly etched into the American consciousness, arguably as much as the precious first few lines of the Gettysburg Address. (OK, well perhaps old Honest Abe would beg to differ on that latter point.)
But consider “Knock on Wood,” “Green Onions,” “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect” and the “Theme from ‘Shaft'” — the list goes on and on. The classics produced by Stax Records in Memphis during the ’60s and ’70s are part of the national cultural fabric — comparable to the canon of the label’s storied soul/pop counterpart to the north, Motown — and Baltimore Center Stage celebrates that body of work with “Soul: The Stax Musical.”
Directed by departing Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah and choreographed by Chase Brock (with its book authored by Matthew Benjamin), “Soul” will be presented through June 10. It is the final play of Center Stage’s 2017-2018 season.
In addition, “Soul” is the final production at Center Stage by the British-born Kwei-Armah, who will become artistic director of the Young Vic in London after seven seasons at the Baltimore theater.
The musical, which takes place between 1960 and 1975, was inspired by the true story of Stax and the rise of its iconic artists, such as Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes and Booker T & The MG’s. These folks are credited with creating the very foundation of American soul music, right up there with other leading lights of that genre such as James Brown, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.
“Soul” explores how those infectious, irresistible melodies and grooves created for mass consumption at 926 McLemore Ave. in Memphis (which today is the site of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music) helped bring together Americans of all backgrounds and races during the apex of the civil rights era, no less than in the city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Like Motown, Elektra, Fantasy, Chess, Vee-Jay, Atlantic, Capitol and other labels, Stax provided the soundtrack of a generation awakened by the nightmare of the Kennedy assassination, called to action by such watershed events as Selma, the ’68 Democratic National Convention and the Vietnam War, and fueled by the optimism of Woodstock and the cynicism of Watergate.
The anchor players of the “Soul” narrative are the label’s white founders, the well-intentioned but rather naive Jim Stewart and his no-nonsense sister, Estelle Axton, both of whom are portrayed capably by Robert Lenzi and Mary Jo Mecca. Also featured prominently throughout the story is Al Bell (played by Warner Miller), an African-American deejay in town who increasingly becomes a major behind-the-scenes force (and eventual partner) at Stax.
Stewart, Axton and Bell keep the Stax story moving along, from the label’s heady early days as a hitmaker; navigating through the treacherous racial and cultural waters of Memphis and America of the ’60s and the ’70s; and the company’s myriad challenges (legal entanglements with Atlantic Records, Redding’s tragic and sudden death, MLK’s assassination, nebulous financial quagmires, the emergence of shadowy organized crime figures, etc.).
The windup is Stax’s ultimate demise amid Memphis’ urban blight and decay, but also the label’s eventual legacy as a cultural powerhouse and gritty counterpoint to Berry Gordy’s polished, more urbane Motown sound.
All of this feels a bit heavy-handed, mechanical and overwrought at times, and forced upon the audience like a rather simplified history lesson. One can’t help but surmise that the true Stax story is far more multi-layered and nuanced than this musical depiction and razor-thin dialogue. (For the full story, recommended reading is Robert Gordon’s excellent “Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.”)
The saving grace of “Soul,” of course, is the fantastic, transcendent music produced by Stax, as well as the show’s high-energy performances and superb cast. The well-produced “Soul” often has a live concert feel to it, with musical director Rahn Coleman and his orchestra providing a tight rhythm backdrop to the performances and the archival footage frequently flashed onstage in real time. As a result, audience members feel unrestrained and compelled to clap and sing along to the familiar tunes as performers dance wildly through the theater’s aisles.
Standout performances include Allison Semmes, who as Carla Thomas offers a mesmerizing rendition of “Gee Whiz (Look at his Eyes),” and Ricky Fante as Redding, delivering what’s arguably the production’s centerpiece and show-stopper, the timeless “Dock of the Bay.” Jon Harrison Taylor also gives knockout performances as both his real-life father, the late, great Johnnie Taylor, and the iconic Wilson “The Wicked” Pickett, while his sister Tasha Taylor turns in marvelous portrayals of Mavis Staples and Mable John.
Other crowd-pleasers among the 21-member cast include Harrison White, who provides comic relief as the irrepressible, swaggering Rufus Thomas (“I’m cleaner than 19 yards of chitlins!”), and Boise Holmes, portraying “Black Moses” himself, Isaac Hayes.
Holmes’ sexy portrayal occasionally veers into borderline parody, particularly his soul-drenched, self-conscious re-creations of “Walk On By” and “Shaft.” But his out-of-the-blue allusion to the singer’s later-in-life recurring role as Chef on “South Park” drew some well-earned laughs.
With more than 30 Stax classics performed throughout the show, “Soul” — at two hours and 20 minutes — occasionally feels more like a jukebox workout than a theatrical performance. A few less songs might’ve allowed the story a chance to truly breathe and resonate a bit. But with intoxicating and faithful renditions of Stax nuggets like “I’ll Take You There,” “Who’s Making Love,” “In The Midnight Hour,” “Green Onions” and “Soul Man,” who’s really complaining, right?
Center Stage’s “Soul: The Stax Musical” is a thoroughly engaging and exhilarating nostalgic journey, revisiting some of the best music made in the 20th century, and a perfect swansong for Kwame Kwei-Armah. This is music that, to paraphrase Stax’s visionary Jim Stewart in the show, really gets under your skin.
Ah, sweet soul music, indeed.
For information, visit centerstage.org/plays-and-events/mainstage/soul.