By Pat Launer
Calvin Manson, founding director of the Ira Aldridge Repertory Players has made a small cottage industry of intimate vocal shows, sometimes with a semblance of a story-line, most often not. But he always has something in mind. This time, he has his eye on a capella music, and its evolution from the street performers under the streetlights of his youth (singing songs by The Limelites and The Marvelettes) to the artists of today (John Legend, Ed Sheeren) and a whole lot of performers in between: John Lennon; Whitney Houston; Earth, Wind and Fire.
The title, “Voices: We Still Ain’t Got a Band,” is a sly reference to an earlier IARP production, 2009’s “Looking for an Echo: After 40 Years, We Still Ain’t Got a Band,” which focused on some of the doo wop classics.
This time out, the selections are more wide-ranging, and not all of them lend themselves to a doo wop, a capella sensibility. But Manson, abetted by musical directors Roosevelt Carter and Brianna Benyard (both featured in the show), has amassed a group of nine talented singers, accompanied periodically by rhythm-man Tony Muhammad on electric upright bass.
At the performance I attended, Manson announced that, true to the malleable, musical community of his neighborhood, he added two performers just for that evening; one of them, the sax player Eric Bullard, he’d just met that day. The other was old friend Renée Battle, who opened the show with a slow burn: Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Then Bullard did a killer sax solo.
But it was the real opener that was the highlight of the evening (which comprised 20 songs in less than two hours): John Lennon’s “Come Together,” sung in a terrific, syncopated, doo wop, tight harmony arrangement by the whole cast.
The other high points were most of the numbers by the quartet of Carter, Claude Bell, Ahmad Rashada and Herb Sims, part of a beloved doo wop group that has wowed San Diego audiences for years. The silky-voiced Carter is most often the lead singer, but two especially strong numbers were “Daddy’s Home,” with Rashada on lead, and “Higher and Higher,” with Sims in the spotlight.
On the distaff side, a trio of women (Benyard plus Bonni Dance and Janet Polite) sparkled in the touching, moving “Grandma’s Hands” by Bill Withers. Dance displayed her roof-rattling soprano and scat in several numbers, and she wrapped up the Whitney Houston medley with her knockout version of “I Will Always Love You.”
The choreography (Leila Aguirre) is minimal. The lighting (thanks to a newly deceased transformer) is virtually non-existent. But Manson, ever the improviser, used what was available at the Educational Cultural Complex he calls home: he placed several overhead projectors around the room, which served to light the stage with, needless to say, no special effects. But for this minimal production, it was fine. The elegant black evening wear in the second half (costumes by Pearli Killens) added a touch of class.
The final number should have been a rocking, energetic piece to send everyone home on a hand-clapping, singalong high note. Instead, it was R. Kelly’s earnest “I Believe I Can Fly.”
After another six years of productions, IARP still may not have a band, but there seems to be an endless supply of performers with wonderful voices and a strong, heartfelt commitment to Manson and his effort to create a community theater for the Mountain View area.
- “Voices” runs through Nov. 22 at the Educational Cultural Complex, 4343 Ocean View Blvd. in San Diego
- The final two performances are Friday, Nov. 20, at 8 p.m. and Sunday Nov. 22, at 2:30 p.m.
- Tickets ($25-$30) are available at 619-283-4574 or online at iarpplayers.ticketleap.com
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.