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Muddy Waters (The Hoochie Coochie Man)/Once on This Island

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MUDDY WATERS (THE HOOCHIE COOCHIE MAN)

Black Ensemble

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND

Pegasus Players

When Muddy Waters growled out, "I'm a man! I spell M! A! N!" over a muscular guitar riff on his 1955 hit record "Mannish Boy," he wasn't just issuing a rawly sensuous musical mating call (though the sexual element was a big factor in the song's success on the R & B charts). He was asserting his own proud humanity and masculinity on behalf of a whole race of people systematically dehumanized and emasculated, first by slavery and then, in Waters's day (and our own), by economic inequality.

So the Black Ensemble's musical biography of the blues great, Muddy Waters (The Hoochie Coochie Man), is on the right track in its opening choral ritual, which pays tribute not just to Waters but to blues as a potent historical force with meaning beyond music. Led by Charles Michael Moore as a blind griot in farmer's overalls, a group of young actor-singer-dancers portray the blues' beginnings in the wail of an African mother for her stolen son, and its later development in the call-and-response chants of field workers. This invigorating opening sequence rightly suggests that Waters's journey from the Mississippi Delta to the rent parties and recording studios of Chicago, and then to concert venues across America and Europe, epitomized a crucial shift for the blues and the people who created it.

Unfortunately, the promise of a richly textured theatrical/historical tapestry is soon forgotten, as Muddy Waters turns into a resume-reciting scan of its hero's career. Superficial even by the standards of old-fashioned Hollywood biopics like Night and Day and A Song to Remember, this production offers rousing renditions of Waters standards like "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man," "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "Forty Days and Forty Nights," and the inevitable "Got My Mojo Workin'," grittily sung by guitarist-actor Roy Hytower (as Waters) to the accompaniment of a tough, tight quartet that features fine blowing by one Harmonica Hinds. And in between talky listings of Waters's credits, a few well-acted vignettes offer glimpses into his life: his upbringing on Stovall's plantation (Bridgett R. Williams, speaking in delicately African-inflected tones as Waters's grandmother, recalls how young McKinley Morganfield picked up his lifelong nickname from his habit of fishing in a muddy creek); his 1943 arrival in Chicago to pursue a career in music (he makes his debut at a west-side rent party, sexily entertaining the crowd to defuse a knife-and-pistol showdown between two jealous women); and his belated recognition that Chess Records, the label he thought of as home, had ripped him off for millions of dollars in royalties.

But the life of the sharecropper's son who attained international stardom surely had more excitement and meaning than this dramatically diffuse quick caricature delivers. Written by drummer and Waters sideman Jimmy Tillman and Black Ensemble artistic director Jackie Taylor, and first presented in 1984 (a year after its subject's death), Muddy Waters (The Hoochie Coochie Man) offers little detail or depth of insight into Waters's inner workings and wide-ranging influence. The energetic cast and band and Hytower's performance of Waters's beloved songs make this a good party show--but not much more.

Once on This Island takes place in an isolated tropical paradise where "two different worlds never meant to meet" come crashing together. No, it's not the dinosaur/human confrontation of Jurassic Park--though for all the believable human feeling it generates it might as well be. This musical version of Rosa Guy's novel My Love, My Love relates a fairy tale about a black peasant girl who falls in love with a wealthy mulatto youth. Outfitted with an instantly forgettable ersatz-calypso score by composer Stephen Flaherty and librettist Lynn Ahrens, the show's effortfully exotic evocation of Caribbean music and life is about as authentic as this summer's reggae-style Pringles commercial.

But an audience seeking well-performed if mindless musical entertainment could do worse than this non-Equity production, which Pegasus Players has mounted prior to a national tour under the auspices of Big League Theatricals. Director Victoria Bussert (who staged last year's Pegasus/Big League collaboration, Buddy . . . The Buddy Holly Story) brings a flair for attractive, direct story telling--and a keen eye for casting--to this shallow but pretty show.

Unlike director-choreographer Graciela Daniele, whose Broadway production (seen here last year in a touring version) used fluid, seemingly endless movement to disguise the work's lack of substance, Bussert takes a much less elaborate approach, inviting the actors to keep their performances simple and honest--from the heart, not the hips. The results are often charming, thanks to standout singing by (among others) Michelle Bernard, whose bell-like voice perfectly fits the love-struck ingenue Ti Moune; Joseph Parchia, Paul Oakley Stovall, Natasha Williams, and statuesque Jenna Ford as the gods and goddesses who ensnare Ti Moune in their whimsical games; Anne Harris as Ti Moune's upper-class rival; and Oliver Reid, a very promising operatic tenor whose elegant voice sets him apart from the others--as befits his intriguing but underwritten character Daniel, the mixed-race aristocrat torn between his black and European heritages. These talented young performers, effectively accompanied by a punchy three-piece band led by musical director Michael Thomas and colorfully costumed under the guiding eye of Tom Reiter, make Once on This Island enjoyable summer fluff.

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