Review by Kathleen Campion
The York Theatre Company, dug in at The Theater at St. Peter’s, at Citicorp, offers up season upon season of challenging musical performances. It’s always fun to go. That said—if more than a few months have passed since last visit—it is also a challenge remembering how to get into this place!
The current offering, Texas in Paris is sort of a road-movie, buddy-film notion offered up on a bare stage with a lot of Paris projected artfully on the back wall. The story, set in 1979, (The playwright moved the setting to 1979 after the preview performance.), is the matching of Osceola Mays (Lillias White), a black woman from a Dallas ghetto with John Burrus (Scott Wakefield), a white cowboy singer from the rodeo/country culture of Somewhere, Texas. They are hired to appear together, live in Paris, to sing their “genuine” American songs. Yes, we are asked to suspend reality, judgement, and probability on a huge scale here. Except, it IS based on a true story.
Playwright and folklorist, Alan Govenar recorded the sound of the real Osceola Mays and John Burrus. They sang personal songs from their lives: Negro spirituals in her case, cowboy tunes in his. (Those recordings of these unschooled singers became the basis for the original Paris show as well as the underpinning of the current production at St. Peter’s.)
Govenar tells us “Texas in Paris is a metaphor for the dilemma of race that is currently dividing our nation….” It is that, but little more. It’s not a play, nor a musical, nor a musical play. Ok, I’m out. It is a string of conversations interrupted by a series of songs.
Osceola is endlessly open, upbeat, and grateful for the amazing opportunity the tour has given her. She loves Paris for itself. What’s more, she blooms in the more-level playing field it provides with her aloof, white co-star. She may not go home at all.
For his part, John is unhappy, uncomfortable, and less appreciated by the French audience. He can’t wait to get home.
There are a few moments in most of Ms. White’s songs that invite the audience to join her—if not vocally, then in finger-snapping, clapping, and swaying—not something the largely white, older, upper East Side crowd seems comfortable with. They wanted to; the spirit lingers willingly in the room, but the flesh is weak.
The music in Ms. White’s repertoire relies on idiosyncratic, almost childlike, personal sweet songs (“Miss Mary Mack”) and on traditional rafter raisers (“Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” and “O Freedom”). Mr. Wakefield’s repertoire relies on thin, predictable, cowboy tunes (“Git Along Little Dogies” and so forth).
At the risk of sounding both harsh and pretentious, I shall proceed.
Harsh: the production had the pace, depth, and motivation of a school play.
Pretentious: there is no arc; it never builds to a climax; they do one more song, one more conversation, one more song, one more conversation and the breakthrough moment? The cowboy gets it:Racism is bad. Yawn.
The Savior (the Lord, the Lamb) is a presence throughout though not a dramatic one. Jesus serves as a sort of Switzerland; a place where these two disparate people attempt to establish some common ground. In this case it’s not patriotism that is the refuge of scoundrels, but Jesus.
When the remarks of the always entertaining artistic director, Jim Morgan, (which this time included a groaner of a Super Bowl pun, along with announcements) prove more memorable than the show you came to see, we’re in the weeds.
The performance I saw was an early rendition in previews so it may hot up by opening night, February 5th. I hope so.
Texas in Paris – By Alan Govenar; directed by Akin Babatunde.
WITH: Lillias White and Scott Wakefield.
Designed by James Morgan, Amy Jones supervised the music, Brian Nason handled lighting and Christopher Vergara the costumes. Jason Johnson-Spinos is the projection and sound designer. Alan Govenar provided photographs, video, and location sound recordings. Wig and make-up designed by Jared Janas and Kevin Maloof did props.
Presented by The York Theatre Company at The Theater at St.Peter’s, entrance on E 54th Street just east of Lexington Avenue. It is a limited engagement through Sunday, March 1, 2015. The performance runs 80 minutes without an intermission.