The third volume of Soulpepper’s Manhattan Concert Cycle, Taking the ‘A’ Train Uptown To Harlem, pairs personable musicians and an eclectic New York-centric set list with the kind of bland, glossed-over storytelling that gets people to the theatre – people who otherwise wouldn’t have gone.
Director, writer, and host Albert Schultz ties the show’s 16 songs directly to New York landmarks, neighbourhoods, events and notable figures that inch their way from Midtown to Harlem. The show focuses on the latter’s renaissance in the 1920s, using a condescending tone that suggests that Schultz can’t fathom reaching adulthood without learning about Lindy’s Restaurant, or the hotel where John Lennon died.
He moves things along by reading sporadically-connected historical tidbits off his laptop that sound like Wikipedia stub articles regurgitated, then strung together. Whether Duke Ellington or Marian Anderson or Dr. King, he introduces everyone with vague adjectives that stand in for insight, like ‘extraordinary’ or ‘remarkable,’ because there are too many subjects crammed into the show to delve further into the lives of these historic figures. This is how he manages to be both long-winded and myopic about whatever he’s talking about. It’s the musicians’ abandon at their material that offers the promise of resuscitation.
Alexander Brown’s trumpet work is poised and authoritative, while Jacob Gorzhaltsan on sax is a controlled panic attack, though no less arresting.
Music director Mike Ross goes method actor on John Lennon’s “Mother” and matches him wail for straining wail.
Divine Brown works her inner diva and shimmers while covering Billie Holiday and Nina Simone’s songs. At one point, she demanded four more beats on a song because she wasn’t done scat singing quite yet.
Anna Atkinson seems to leap for and bask in each note individually in a stripped-down version of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose.” The specificity of her focus made me mimic it with mine, giving way to a rare moment of communion.
Another such moment saw Daren A. Herbert confessing, “I can’t stay still on this one,” as he sang Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” and then proceeded to tear it up on stage.
Jackie Richardson’s thunderous voice and predilection for breaking the fourth wall and making sure we were still alive was a reminder of how much we were talked, played and sung at, rather than to, the rest of the night.
As a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance, its roots, and its far-reaching influence, Uptown to Harlem is no more than a glorified SparkNotes guide.
Taking the ‘A’ Train Uptown To Harlem runs until Sept. 3 at the Baillie Theatre. For more information, visit www.soulpepper.ca.