Wednesday, December 6, 2017

123 (2017-2018): Review: CROSS THAT RIVER (seen December 1, 2017)

“Black Cowboys Matter”

Cross That River, a thoroughly winning, unpretentious, indelibly distinctive musical about a 19th-century black cowboy, knocked me off my bronco with its remarkably infectious music, extraordinary performances, and engrossing historical background. With a supernova exploding nightly in the person of stunning singer/actress Maya Azucena, this is about as must-see, must-hear as any new Off-Broadway show of the season.
Alan Harris. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Cross That River, composed by jazz artist Allan Harris, who wrote the lyrics and book with his wife, Pat Harris, has been in development for 12 years and was originally seen at the New York Music Festival in 2009. At the preview I attended, director Regge Life told the audience that changes were still being made that very day. I don’t know if more are in store but what I witnessed was memorable enough to recommend you gallop on over to 59E59 Theaters to catch this heartbreaking little pony while it’s still corralled there.

The current season has been hospitable to Western-themed shows, what with the musicals Loveless, Texas and Desperate Measures and a revival of Arthur Kopit’s Indians (some of whose background Cross That River shares). The new show, though, goes a bit easier on production values, telling its story concert style, its four performers, two men and two women (the latter playing multiple roles) sitting on stools across the downstage area.

A sensational five-musician band is directly behind them: Alan Grubner on violin; Miki Hayama on keyboard; Shirazette Tinnin on drums and percussion; Seth Johnson on guitar; Jay White on bass and vocals, with Paul Beaudry on bass from December 6-10.
Carolyn Leonhart, Jeffrey Lewis, Maya Azucena, Allan Harris. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Black cowboys, who played a larger role in the history of the American West than is widely recognized, are sometimes seen in movies (like Django) but rarely on the stage. The pride African-Americans take in this fabled past is recognized by various associations of black cowboys, one of them being the Federation of Black Cowboys, whose headquarters and stables have been around the corner from my home in, of all places, South Queens, since 1994. Their local presence has diminished recently but it wasn’t long ago that, on nice days, they would ride by my house on their steeds, sometimes even wearing fancy cowboy garb. It was a grand sight albeit with the not-so-grand residue of their passage remaining in the street behind them.

The writers honor the black cowboy’s history through the tale of the fictional Blue, narrated in song and speech by the guitar-playing Allan Harris as the grizzled, aging cowpoke, with his younger self, Young Blue, portrayed by Jeffrey Lewis.
Jeffrey Lewis. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Young Blue grows up as a slave on the McLaughlin plantation in Louisiana, where he shows an affinity for horses and becomes a stable boy. Raised by his wise old grandma, Mama Lila (Azucena), after his mother is sold, Young Blue and the plantation owner’s daughter, Courtney (Carolyn Leonhart), fall in love.
Carolyn Leonhart. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In 1845, hating the life of a slave, he steals a horse and runs away, crossing the Sabine River into Texas, and takes up the rough and tumble life of a cowboy, eventually becoming a cattle driver responsible for getting herds to Abilene, Kansas.

The narrative covers Blue’s life over the next couple of decades, his cattle-driving, his love for and marriage to a saloon hall girl, the marriage’s tragic consequences, and the sentimental surprise that brings everything to a weepy but satisfying conclusion. We also meet mail-order brides and learn about the black militias called Buffalo Soldiers and their anti-Indian campaigns.

Themes of the romance of the old West compete with ones of freedom, represented by the circumstances of 19th-century blacks and Native Americans. The final song, “I Do Believe,” is an anthem as rip-roaringly patriotic as “God Bless America.” Given the politically troubled times we live in, it’s harder every day to work up feelings of conventional patriotism; if any song could raise a cynical audience’s red, white, and blue blood-cell count, this is the one.
Maya Azucena. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Don’t be fooled by the unusual, modern jazz-inflected overture, which takes a while to get under your skin; what follows is a succession of unbeatable songs in many styles, from R&B to pop to soul to fiddle-accented hoedown to hand-clapping country-western to blues to gospel to dreamy mariachi. There are solos and choral numbers, and everybody chimes in for harmonic backups.
Jeffrey Lewis, Maya Azucena. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Some songs are sad and lyrical, others romantically melodic, others so joyously up-tempo you’ll feel like dancing in the aisles, while yet others set your heart to racing. In one of the latter, drummer Shirazette Tinnin accompanies Blue’s singing about his horseback escape by sitting near him on a wooden box and pounding it like the sound of rhythmic hoof beats.
Shirazette Tinnin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Harris, who narrates in a completely natural, folksy, down-home, easygoing drawl, sings with the kind of creamy voice, rich with the juice of experience, that you could listen to all day. Lewis has a beautiful tenor while both Azucena and Leonhart can slide effortlessly from blues to belting.

But for sheer star quality, Azucena, seated at center, is the one you’ll be talking about when the show’s over. Her hair in cornrows, the sidelocks shaved, her cheekbones boldly prominent, her eyes flashing, her smile glowing, she sings with an overwhelming power and conviction. When, as Mama Lila, she plunges into the show-stopping, gospel-tinted “I’m Going to Soar,” you better hold on to your armrests or you’ll find yourself taking off into space.
Maya Azucena. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Life keeps his actors seated almost throughout. When they stand they stay near their stools, with barely any physical interaction. But their expressivity, both facial and bodily, not to mention vocally, makes their relationships crystal clear.

The simplicity of the staging is probably a plus because it forces us to imagine things no show could replicate without losing the material’s charm. The book’s structure as a string of anecdotes works better as a story told than one enacted literally, and lets us focus on the wonderful songs without the distraction of theatrical contrivances.

Aiding in this effort is Anne Patterson’s set of little more than a two-tiered, black space, with a large, bone-colored, deadwood sculpture hanging overhead. No designer is credited for the costumes, which are simple suggestions of Western garb, like beaten-up, straw cowboy cats, bandannas, and the like for the men, and long skirts for the women, with the occasional addition of an accessory, like floral hair ornament for a saloon girl or a blanket for a squaw. Helping to make it all look lovely is Michael Gianitti’s delicate lighting.
Carolyn Leonhart. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
An unwritten law says reviewers should never betray their feelings by rising to take part in a standing ovation. Confession: Cross That River made me break the law.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through December 31