Broadway Noire: Make Them Hear You
Metropolitan Room, NYC, February 23, 2017
Reviewed by Marilyn Lester for Cabaret Scenes
Ah, youth! Youth is blessed with enthusiasm and daring, but is also often hampered by a lack of experience. Such was the case with Broadway Noire: Make Them Hear You, the brainchild of 21-year-old music director and pianist Derrick Byars (pictured). As billed, the show was indeed a celebration of African-American musical theater, delivered by a talented cast: Sheniqua Trotman, Manna KnJoi, Jamarious Stewart and Jacobi Hall. Individually and collectively, these performers drove the show home with enthusiasm and affinity for the many numbers performed from shows such as Ain’t Misbehavin’, Porgy and Bess, The Wiz, Dreamgirls, The Color Purple, and more. But even with an impressive musical résumé already behind him, Byars as director, host and writer remains in the learning curve. Reading what seemed like an academic paper from the piano, he didn’t quite connect all the dots in his goal to “hear how the music has evolved, but also how African-American culture has evolved,” frequently even omitting the titles of shows the music is derived from.
Byars does have a developed talent for arranging, however, with the cast sounding full-bodied and excelling harmoniously as a quartet—almost to the extent of sounding like a choir of many more voices. Individually, each had something to bring to the performance table. Stewart provided an anchoring voice, with little opportunity to shine individually. His one solo number of “Run and Tell That” showed a rock sensibility flavored with the singer’s movement instincts (he’s also a gymnast and performer with extreme action troupe, STREB). Trotman is an archetype of power-voicing, but does lose vocal control and discipline on those big numbers, such as “Home” and “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” In her quieter moments, her fine voice is steady and sure. KnJoi is primarily an opera singer and aced “Summertime.” Her gift is that, unlike many classical artists, she has also mastered popular singing, with a wonderfully flexible voice that’s resonant in the lower ranges, such as in “If You Believe.” Hall, the most polished of the four performers, with a clear, rich baritone, was especially charismatic with “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” and “Make Them Hear You.” As the penultimate number, “Black and Blue” was wrenchingly poignant, while a combined pair of spirituals, although not from musical theater – “There’s a Better Day A-Comin’” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” – brought an ambitious evening to a not unsatisfying conclusion.