The projects are alive with the sound of music in Tim Acito’s adaptation of Gloria Naylor’s The Women Of Brewster Place, but don’t expect any “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” or “cream colored ponies and crisp apple streudels” anywhere in the vicinity of the walled-in housing development where these women lead their dreary, heartbreaking, and heartache-plagued lives. Times are indeed tough for Mattie, Etta Mae, Kiswana, Lorraine, Tee, Cora Lee, Mavis, and Sophie, but they’ve got their music—and each other—to pull themselves through.

Following its World Premiere engagement at Washington D.C.’s Alliance Theatre in 2007, a much revised West Coast Premiere of The Women Of Brewster Place The Musical has now opened at The Celebration Theatre to critical raves and audience cheers and tears. Under Michael Matthews’ stunning direction, and with a cast of absolutely sensational triple threat talents, The Women Of Brewster Place tears down the walls with sentiment and soul.

The brainchild of a gay white male with his own triple threats (Acito wrote book and music and lyrics), The Women Of Brewster Place takes Naylor’s large, eclectic cast of characters and somehow manages to tell most of their stories as much through lyrics as through spoken dialog, with R&B melodies providing a musical expression of their struggles, sorrows, and occasional triumphs and joys.  (Only one of Naylor’s women, Ciel, has ended up on the cutting room floor, and since her story is the grimmest of them all, the decision was in all likelihood a wise one.)

The six compelling women that remain are:

Mattie (Kim Yarbrough), the heart and soul of Brewster Place, who lost everything she worked thirty years for thanks to her ungrateful wretch of a son;

Etta Mae (Cheridah Best), Mattie’s childhood friend, who has used her sex appeal to bed man after man on a quest for that ever-illusive thing called love;

Kiswana (Kelly M. Jenrette), born Melanie Brown, who left her middle-class home in search of her African American roots in the projects of Brewster Place;

Cora Lee (Julanne Chidi Hill), single mother of a brood of hell-raisers she seems unable to control until a magical night of Shakespeare In The Park offers, at least temporarily, the prospect of hope;

Lorraine (Christine Horn) and Tee (dance captain Erica Ash), a lesbian couple who have moved to Brewster Place in search of acceptance, only to discover that no matter where they go, judgmental, mean-spirited people will follow;

Mavis (Lisa Tharps) and Sophie (Charlene Modeste), a pair of elderly gossips ever tsk-tsking the behavior of the women they spy from their Brewster Place window perches.

Acito tells many of these stories through his songs, which include Etta Mae’s “Makin’ The Rounds” (i.e. from man to man); Kiswana’s autobiographical “Kiswana Browne;” “Man Of God,” Etta Mae’s musical lament about the preacher man who done her wrong; and “Ghosts With Paper Bones,” Lorraine’s wrenching tale of a father who not only disowned her for being gay, but burned everything she owned in the bargain; and many more. Though there are scenes of spoken dialog, The Women Of Brewster Place is indeed a musical which mostly lets its songs do the talking.

Performances are all-around sensational, from the soul-deep warmth of Yarbrough’s Mattie to Best’s sexy, gusto-filled Etta Mae to Jenrette’s tough yet tender Kiswana Browne. The raw power of Hill’s Cora Lee comes from deep in the gut, Ash gives Tee an in-your-face sauciness, and Modeste and Tharps are a double hoot as The Biddies Of Brewster Place.  Tharps’ doubling as Kiswana’s mother gives her one of the show’s most powerful songs, “Then Know This,” and she sings the begeezus out of it. Best of all is Horn’s performance as Lorraine, who lucks out with a grand total of three show-stopping numbers, the manically cheery “Smile,” the heartbreaking “Ghosts With Paper Bones,” and the moving “If You Want Me To Be Strong.”

Director Matthews (ably assisted by Ken Werther) has always had a flair for shows with music and dance, like the award-winning Stupid Kids.  The Women Of Brewster Place lets him strut his directorial stuff in a full-fledged musical, proving that like Acito, a gay white man can have one heck of a lot of soul inside.

Cheers are in order for recent L.A. Weekly Award-winning choreographer Ameenah Kaplan, who has turned many of Acito’s solos and duets into inventively staged production numbers, with the Brewster Place women as a kind of dancing Greek chorus for whichever woman or women are singing their hearts out.  Backing up the gals are musical director Gregory Nabours and the R&B-infused five-piece offstage band: Nabours on keyboard, Brian Morales on tenor sax, Aaron Thomas on trumpet, David Lee on guitar, and Brian Cannady on drums.  Jason Tucker is associate music director.

Kurt Boetcher’s set is simple but striking—basically an upstage wall which captures the urban decay that surrounds these women, and some window frames that hang suspended above the action, but it’s enough, giving the eight performers room for Kaplan’s choreography as well as other full-cast sequences. Cameron Zetty’s fine lighting design varies according to the mood of each scene, and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design assures that actors and musicians remain in sync and effectively mixed.  Naila Aladdin Sanders’ terrific costumes situate us smack dab in the middle of the polyester-awful ‘70s. Wigmaster Ronn Jones deserves snaps for the women’s period-perfect hair (including some humungous afros) as does Michael O’Hara for his props. Amy E. Stoddard is production stage manager, assisted by Tijuana Grey.  The Women Of Brewster Place is produced by David Tarlow. Jim Halloran is associate producer. 

Though the show ends a tad abruptly, by the time the final notes of the rising Act Two closer “Tear Down The Wall” have been sung, the audience has been taken on an amazing journey from despair to hope.  The standing ovation given to the eight superwomen taking their bows is well deserved indeed.

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
May 6, 2010
                                                                                     Photos: David Elzer

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