By HERBERT W. SIMPSON
It seems that Geva Theater Center’s long devotion to creating a worthy theater piece devoted to the history of Son House has reached a temporarily completed form in this rich, complicated show that dazzled the opening night audience. Geva commissioned the work more than four years ago, and at this point it includes a number of impressive, prestigious contributing African-American artists, and stars the irresistible Cleavant Derricks.
Son House was a Mississippi-born black man whose original music-making and innovations seem to have influenced every blues and jazz artist I have heard of. Then he disappeared for almost two decades when he was jailed for murder, became addicted, had five wives, notably preached spirituality, and was rediscovered and idolized in Rochester in the 1960s. So, we can understand that he’s referred to as “legendary.” Now we can find him in the Blues Hall of Fame, several Lifetime Achievement Awards, and musical histories.
The musical is all about his life and art, but adds an overall score by Billy Thompson a famed blues musician and music director of this show, and by writer-director Keith Glover. It all starts with the music.
As of opening night, the sound system may have been the problem with the often unintelligible dialogue. I didn’t care. The show is emotional, bewitching, and always entertaining. It is based on the biography of Son House by Rochester native Daniel Beaumont. But ultimately it is a celebration.
I like choreographer Norwood Pennewell’s movement for all the cast very much. It looks like revealing natural behavior, not dance; and the cast seem perfectly expressive and at home in it. PJ, as Pennewell is called, said that he was overwhelmed by the star, Cleavant Derricks’s eagerness to take instruction and seemingly effortless talent, a reaction shared by Pennewell’s guru, Garth Fagan, the head of Garth Fagan Dance and choreographer of every major stage production of Disney’s The Lion King around the world. [Two cast members are Lion King alums.].
Fagan said that this show should end with Derricks hitting a super-high note and holding it thrillingly. He agreed with my admission that I can’t view Derricks from the position of a critic; I’m more of a fan. In powerful angry moments in August Wilson plays, in a musical comedy star performance originating Dreamgirls, even turning the small supporting role of the fiance`’s father in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at Geva into a masterful portrait, Derricks is always a great actor. At 65 his singing is stronger and more thrilling than ever.
This show is so generally impressive and pleasing, I wonder where to suggest it continue after it ends at Geva.
Revival: The Resurrection of Son House opened on May 1, 2019 at the Geva Theater’s Nextstage Theater, 75 Woodbury Blvd. in Rochester, N.Y. For tickets call 585-232-4382. Directed by Keith Glover with choreography by Norwood Pennewell, the production is slated to close on June 2, 2019.