BALTIMORE The world premiere of “SOUL The Stax Musical” has generated the excitement and applause that creative producers envisioned upon conceiving the historical musical production.
SOUL Stax Musical effectively tells the exciting-but-dramatic story of the legendary Memphis recording studio’s existence from 1957-1975.
The original studio (Satellite Records) was located in the heart of Memphis' black community in the 900 block of Mclemore Avenue in Shelby County, Tennessee. What was then, a hotbed for attracting the city’s talented young black artists during that era, Stax easily rivaled Motown’s Northern Soul recording success in Detroit.
Having visited the actual Stax Museum of American Soul Music recently, this writer has a close affinity to the Stax 1950s successful business model, especially in the wake of Jim Crowism and devout racism that existed in the South during the record company's heyday.
The play stays close to history, while depicting the ups and downs of the company's business decisions, primarily made by sister-brother owners Jim Stewart (Robert Lenzi) and Estelle Axton (Mary Jo Mecca) and co-owner, Al Bell aka Alvertis Isbell (Warner Miller). Stewart and Axton’s surnames comprised the acronym STAX. Lenzi, Mecca and Miller were outstanding performers throughout the entire show.
In the lobby after the play, Baltimore natives, bassist Mark Russell and guitarist Matt Kruft credited Musical Director Rahn Coleman for comprising a singularly soulful unit of live musicians.
The seven-piece band including three horns had a remarkable big-band sound and performed with the real-life dexterity of the original musicians. Respectfully, the cast depicted Stax stars like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas his daughter Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, The Staple Singers, Booker T. (Jones) & The MGs with drummer Al Jackson Jr., bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and guitarist Steve Cropper. Memphis Horns members Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love were conspicuously unmentioned in the play.
Chicago native Harrison White, was a show-stopper in his role as Rufus “Funky Chicken” Thomas, the "world's oldest teenager." After the play, White noted that rehearsals commenced "about six months ago" - helping to qualify why the entire performance was so spectacular.
SOUL The Stax Musical is Baltimore Center Stage's final play of the 2017/18 Season.
My only criticism of the play is the awkward, unexplained entrance of composer David Porter, the co-writer of several Isaac Hayes’hits including "Soul Man" for Sam & Dave.
Although Sam & Dave were mentioned throughout the production, it was unclear who actually portrayed the energetic duo— at one point it seemed as though Isaac Hayes’ and David Porter’s characters played their roles. For the record, Sam & Dave were Sam Moore and the late Dave Prater.
Moore still occasionally performs, having sung for President Barack Obama for a soul music-homage television special. Al Bell, now 78, still lives in the Memphis area.
Sam & Dave were originally signed to Atlantic Records by producer Jerry Wexler, but recorded major hits for Stax from ’65 to ’68, and achieved the bulk of their success while with the Memphis-based firm.
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah OBE and choreographer Chase Brock must be credited for lending their extraordinary talents to create such a magnificent production. The play was adapted from a book written by Matthew Benjamin. If the Great White Way of Broadway is the producer’s goal, then without a doubt that’s exactly where this show is headed.
Soul The Stax Musical runs through Sunday, June 10, 2018 at Baltimore Center Stage located at 700 North Calvert Street in the Mount Vernon Cultural District in Baltimore City. For tickets, call: 410-332-0033 or visit: wwww.centerstage.org.