*At two hours and forty-five minutes long including intermission, PLEASE be good!
This is the thought that came to my mind when I agreed to attend the Los Angeles premier of the highly anticipated stage play, Zeola Gaye’s MY BROTHER MARVIN, at the Pantages Theatre Thursday evening. Quite frankly, tagging alongside EURweb publisher, Lee Bailey, I did not want to be the one who, at intermission, suddenly developed a “headache” and had to leave.
So glad that scenario didn’t have to play out.
When it comes to live theatre, some of us have very little tolerance with imperfection. Probably based on years of personal experience in the discipline; where we have gained an appreciation and respect for the craft because not only have we been behind the scenes, we have even done the work. So we get peeved easily at a poorly written script, bad acting; and even audience members disrespecting the craft by showing up late or having private cell phone conversations while the actors are speaking their lines.
With that said, the above scenario doesn’t describe the play we saw at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles (well, except the last part about audience members showing up late and having private…well, you know what I’m sayin’.) The play we saw was brilliantly written, with a superb cast; who knew exactly what they were doing. The play we saw had a cohesive nature that is only found in a unit; a team working together “ride-or-die” style; Stakeholders with a point to prove.
Now for what you came here for.
Yes, this is a play about the life and times of Marvin Gaye the “Prince of R&B.” But no, you will not hear his music in it. Is this a problem? Of course it is. Should it be a deal-breaker? Absolutely NOT. And don’t think for a moment that the production shy’s away from this pink elephant in the room. You’ll get an earful at the top of the show on why there’s no Marvin Gaye music, and the challenges the show’s producer, Zeola Gaye, endured on this journey – not excluding death threats. The disclosure is tastefully executed, but audience members are left puzzled by the reasons (or lack thereof) for the omission. One audience member who had heard about the “no MG music” policy said she played his music in her car on the way to the theater. Another woman said the production has motivated her to have a Marvin Gaye music-only party. She even invited us!
But once you wrap your brain around that, the disappointment fades and you sit back to learn about the man behind the music; the soft-spoken idealist who could not escape his demons, the deep family karma; the toxic relationship he had with his father, and the respect and adoration he had for his mother. You hear about the Marvin Gaye ego, and the arrogance he so effortlessly displayed as he climbed his ladder of success; the temper he unleashed when someone messed with his money, and of course, the drugs.
But this story goes deeper than Marvin, Jr. A lot is revealed about his parents, Alberta and Marvin Gay, Sr. and their relationship to each other. Clifton Powell (who also directs) plays the elder Gay to acting perfection. His character speaks poignantly to the audience at one point, asking not to be judged and then delves into a pitiful soliloquy that leaves you spellbound. Powell’s Gay is a sad, delusional man with effeminate ways that go far beyond his fascination with female lingerie; and writer Angela Barrow-Dunlap along with producer Zeola Gaye offers a no-holds-barred script with revelations that takes the audience behind the curtain in the elder Gays sordid relationship with his own mother; and the toll this relationship has taken on his wife.
Lynn Whitfield’s “Alberta Gay” is resilient, strong and loyal. She is the glue of the family for sure. To describe Ms. Whitfield’s performance as superb seems too small a word. She flies like an eagle in this role. She knows “her” well, and is not afraid to lighten up and have fun with the role in all the right moments. Her scenes with Keith Washington, who portrays Marvin Gaye in the second act, are just lovely. The actors portray a bond between the two that is totally believable; with Washington really stepping up his game from his initial appearance on the stage following the over-the-top charismatic performance by Grant as the younger Marvin Gaye.
Washington, who is best known as an R&B crooner, has had a few brief acting roles in a soap opera, feature film and a TV series. He really delivers a terrific Marvin Gaye after an initial slow start that had some audience members looking at each other sideways wondering if he would pull it off. Washington’s Marvin was steadfast in his protection of his mother; undeniable in his desire for love from his father, and unrelenting in his quest to make music that speaks to the soul of the human experience.
Tony Grant plays Marvin Gaye on the rise in Act I with an abundance of charisma. His powerful voice nails it in the musical selections that were designed especially for this production. These were perhaps songs written by Marvin, yet unreleased? The soul-stirring, gut-wrenching epitaph Grant delivers as he sits at the piano following the death of his singing soul-mate, Tammy Terrell (played beautifully by Lia Grant, who later turns around and delivers Tina Turner in a rendition that had the audience howling…”We neva eva do nothin’ nice and easy.”)
Though much is “described” as opposed to “displayed” in this production about the activities that made Marvin Gaye the superstar he became (at one point Alberta Gay takes us through a verbal montage of events that describe some of her sons greatest accomplishments) audiences are sure to enjoy the array of talented singers (and dancers) who appear as well known celebrities on the bill with Gaye during his club acts. Singer Alyson Williams performs as Gladys Knight; and Teddy Pendergrass entertains. Standout performances by Michael Knowlton (an absolute hoot as David Ruffin), and John Canada Terrell as Berry Gordy.
Talented live musicians set a solid foundation for the music in the show, and Paul Monette’s set design was very cool (loved the wall-sized piano keys, disco scenes and stars against a black backdrop especially!), as was the wardrobe by Patty Turner, Nortrice Banner, and Kelly Linton, and the choreography by Martel J. McCrary.
This must-see production has its final night at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles on Saturday, May 25th. It then concludes its run at the Terrace Theater at the Long Beach Convention Center for one-night-only on Sunday, May 26. Tickets are available at the Pantages box office and Ticketmaster.