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It is not at all unusual for something special to be going on at one of New York’s most sophisticated theatrical venues, the 59E59 Theatres.
That tradition is beautifully continued with the current run of the brilliant Allan Harris musical, CROSS THAT RIVER, directed by Regge Life. Subtitled “A Tale of the Black West,” it weaves a cowboy tale that some may find surprising. I spent two years of my early childhood in Sweetwater, Texas, and I well remember Saturdays at the neighborhood movie house when good white cowboys in white hats and bad white cowboys in black hats would provide plenty of action for us youngsters. In those days little thought was given to what we know now: About 25% of the American cowboys who moved the great western herds of cattle during the latter half of the 19th century were, in fact, black men.
In this well-crafted tale we learn of one such cowboy named Blue (Mr. Harris), a young slave who ventures out from Louisiana to find the promise of hard work and freedom in the vast area of Texas.
A well-known jazz musician, composer and guitarist, Mr. Harris is a Harlem native and not new to the stages of 59E59. In 2014 I had the pleasure of reviewing his wonderful performance there in a production of CAFÉ SOCIETY SWING. At the time I commented on his “…smoky, rich and delightfully raspy voice,” and happily that gift continues here as it beautifully combines with his dazzling artistry on guitar and skill as narrator of Blue’s many adventures. In addition to composing the fine score, Harris collaborated with the show’s producer, Pat Harris, on the imaginative book that details those sometimes romantic adventures. The concert-style staging takes place on the simple but effective set design of Anne Patterson, crowned by a kind of driftwood chandelier, and warmly lit by lighting designer, Michael Giannitti. The four vocally gifted cast members (sometimes playing multiple roles) are up front on stools, with the fine musicians of the band on an elevated platform behind them. Those musicians would start things off with a kind of new age-flavored overture featuring interesting solo moments as it soon evolves into rhythmic and infectious pulsations.
Harris picks it up with twanging guitar as Blue gently starts to tell the story of his younger self (smooth-voiced Jeffrey Lewis), a boy shoeing horses on the plantation while dreaming of a place “…where a man can spread his wings and soar above this life.” That dream is beautifully captured as the lad sings an “I’m Going to Soar” that is full of hope and optimism. As he helps the plantation master’s daughter, Courtney (lovely Carolyn Leonhart), with her horse, a dangerous affection sparks between them. Their longing for one another yields the dream-like duet, “Another Time, Another Place.”
Soon Courtney helps him escape to run “Cross That River,” as his beloved aunt, Mama Lila (Maya Azucena), is joined by young Blue and Courtney for the frightening title song that has the galloping power of a locomotive as it accompanies the lad’s terrifying escape, highlighted by the extraordinary and thunderous box-drumming display of percussionist, Shirazette Tinnin.
In “I Must Believe,” Miss Azucena brings focused passion to Mama Lila’s song of desperate prayer for the escape success of the young runaway she has cared for since his mother was sold away. Soon young Blue and his older story-telling self duet for “See This Land,” as the song celebrates the sun, wind, sky and joyous smells of his newfound freedom. Mr. Harris continues his skillful singing and narration of Blue’s ranch hand work with the delightful country music hoedown of, “Circle-T,” and then introduces us to the rowdy, rough and tumble ranch cook with the lusty tune, “Mule Skinner.” Of course racism was still a factor, and Courtney and young Blue duet a “Taught to Believe” that reminds one of the classic, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” from South Pacific. Such prejudices even limited the bordellos black cowboys could visit, but there were exceptions as described in Blue’s song with Carolyn, “Dark Spanish Lady.” Harris delivers it with a mysterious whispering quality reminiscent of Nat King Cole. That devilish number set the stage for the Act II saloon hall opener, the sexy and sassy, “Welcome to Diamond Jim’s” where cowboys can indulge some forbidden pleasures after long trail rides. Then there are Indians, buffalo and more romance and mystery than can be described here, but I would make a suggestion about one Act II number in particular. It is titled, “My Dreams Were You.” If I were a record promoter, I would shoot for winning the Country Music Awards Song of the Year with that one. It’s a winner, and so is this show.
CROSS THAT RIVER begins performances on Thursday, November 30 for a limited engagement through Sunday, December 31. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7:15 PM; Friday at 8:15 PM; Saturday at 2:15 PM & 8:15 PM; and Sunday at 3:15 PM. Single tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.