If you’re looking for a funny, flirty and fiery musical that hits every note, be sure to catch the regional premiere of Trav’lin – The 1930s Harlem Musical at the Main Stage Theatre in the Arvada Center.
Trav’lin is an energetic evening of 1930s jazz combined with an engaging story of romance that breezily evokes the era when music was swinging, bands were big and the jazz scene was in high gear. The tuneful and jazzy period score rediscovers the music of Harlem Renaissance songwriter J.C. Johnson, a friend and colleague of such musical icons as Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday. The book is by Gary Holmes & Allan Shapiro and marks the debut of Shapiro as a professional playwright.
This powerful production has it all: a tight, well-written script; strong stage production; spot-on acting; live orchestral accompaniment; compelling jazz and blues lyrics; and last but certainly not least – vocals that will blow you away.
Everything clicks to bring the intertwined stories of three couples’ tumultuous relationships to life as the show follows three different generations brought together on 132nd Street in 1930s Harlem. There is the wide-eyed young couple who is still innocent, the seen-it-all lovers who may bicker but still love each other, and the mature duo who wonders if they can overcome the hurt of the past to fall in love once more.
Romance at play
The play is opened by retired Pullman porter and church deacon George Walker, the self-styled expert on love and “unofficial mayor of 132nd Street.” George bemoans how “Love is messy” — little realizing that he will soon be in the midst of that mess himself. A ‘trav’lin’ man by nature, George has settled down to take care of his young niece, Ella, and has moved beyond his rash younger years spent on Basin Street in New Orleans. But he’s about to learn that he can’t escape the past when a stranger with a secret shows up and all three couples’ lives begin to get complicated.
The “stranger” is actually Billie, an abandoned lover from George’s Basin Street days. Taken aback by meeting her long-lost love after all these years and unsure of this new grounded version of George, she disguises herself as “Ethel” and takes up his offer to cook in the church kitchen. It doesn’t take long for Billie, err Ethel, to become a fixture in the lives on 132nd Street, which includes joining George in freely handing out advice to the blooming young couple.
Meanwhile, the fireworks from the feisty hairdresser Roz and her ‘trav’lin’ salesman and flamboyant lover, Archie, spread and eventually all three couples are on the outs. As the women scheme to get the two younger couples back on track, it seems that George and Billie may not be able to overcome their turbulent past.
The entire six-actor cast gives an encore performance, but a special call-out has to go to Natalie Oliver Atherton as Billie. Atherton’s sinuous, raspy notes nearly bring down the house. Not only do her powerful and evocative vocals bring depth and soul to the role, her flawless portrayal of the strong yet vulnerable Billie sets the bar high – and her fellow actors solidly meet the challenge.
Dapper Milton Craig Nealy embodies the role of George with his expressive twinkle, wide-ranging voice and equally impressive stage presence. Tavia Riveé, who has a rapidly growing resume for her age, plays his naive and lovely young niece, Ella. Up-and-coming Nick Gordon is endearing as her persistent young suitor, Nelson. Erin Willis packs on the personality for the role of Roz, the hairdresser, while her ‘trav’lin’ man is played with wily charm and boundless energy by Ian Coulter-Buford.
Coulter-Buford and Gordon’s rendition of Spinnin’ the Web toward the end of the Act 1 was one of the highlights in a show peppered with highlights, including Atherton’s first solo of “You Stayed Away Too Long,” Willis’s take on “You Better Finish What You Start With Me,” and Nealy’s Act 2 performance of “Trav’lin All Alone.”
Strong characters, great orchestra
In addition to the outstanding music and vocals, one of the best aspects of the play was that, unlike so many of today’s live theater performances, the actors didn’t overact. Their strong but subtle characterizations made them more believable and empathetic, while the music, lyrics and compelling vocals carried an amazing range of emotions.
Sadly, all of the orchestra members were hidden from view. The six members seamlessly worked together and deftly handled the score with the requisite tempo and beat of the jazz classics. It would have been nice to see them since the music is so integral to the plot. Members include Jeffrey Campos, conductor, music director and piano; Keith Ewer, assistant to the music director and percussion; Jon Cullison, bass; Mike Hengst, trumpet; Pete Lewis, woodwinds; and Wade Sander, trombone.
The musical is directed by Arvada Center Producing Artistic Director of Musical Theatre, Rod A. Lansberry. Other members of the Arvada Center creative team include Brian Mallgrave (Scenic Design), Jon Olson (Lighting Design), David Thomas (Sound Design), Samantha Saucedo (Costume Design), Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck (Choreographer), and Jeffrey Campos (Music Director).