“Sarah Sings a Love Story”: An enduring romance set to Sarah Vaughan’s jazz

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"Sarah Sings A Love Story at Crossroads Theatre photo by Scott Mendenko.

New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theatre Company could not have chosen a better, more touching, more realistic play to close their final season at their current home than Sarah Sings a Love Story.

For their last production at their soon-to-be-demolished George Street location in New Brunswick, Crossroads produces a luminous story of love and endurance, woven intimately with the jazz vocals of “The Divine

"Sarah Sings A Love Story at Crossroads Theatre photo by Scott Mendenko.
“Sarah Sings a Love Story” at Crossroads Theatre, photo by Scott Mendenko.

One,” Sarah Vaughan. We start in the 90’s, as Elaine Torbry gets ready to attend a Sarah Vaughan concert for the first time without her husband, Russell, who is hospitalized. Through Elaine’s reminiscences we see how she met Russell at Brooklyn College, watch their courtship evolve to a background of jazz—especially the songs of Sarah Vaughan—and finally see them get engaged during a performance by Vaughan at the legendary Birdland.

We follow the Torbrys through the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s as their story is interwoven with Vaughan’s performances and songs. We also watch them weathering a crisis that nearly shatters their marriage. The final scene brings us back to the 1990s, as Elaine stands in a single spotlight and slowly spins a dance to one of Sarah’s songs, smiling with her hands reaching up to the stars as the spirits of Russell and Sarah observe from the shadows.

"Sarah Sings A Love Story at Crossroads Theatre photo by Scott Mendenko.
“Sarah Sings A Love Story” at Crossroads Theatre photo by Scott Mendenko.

Playwright Stephanie Berry has skillfully taken the family stories of her brother and sister-in-law, Carl and Elsie Berry, repeated and embellished through many tellings, and turned them into a heart-catching play of richness and depth with fully rounded characters and realistic dialogue. The play finely balances the love story with scenes of Vaughan performing and telling us about her life. Neither story overshadows the other, but mesh to create a uniquely satisfying whole.

Director Jeffery V. Thompson did a decent job given less than a month to rehearse; with more time available, I believe the show would only have gotten better under his direction. The design team for this production—scenic designer Chris Cumberbatch, lighting designer Melody A. Beal, sound designer Michael C. Wimberly, and costume designer Taracheia Fleming—came up with fluid designs creating graceful transitions between scenes while supplying just enough detail to fix us in time and space during the course of the play. Problems with the sound system marred a good portion of the first act but were ameliorated for the second act. (This was explained as interference from cell phones in the audience.)

"Sarah Sings A Love Story at Crossroads Theatre photo by Scott Mendenko.
“Sarah Sings A Love Story” at Crossroads Theatre photo by Scott Mendenko.

The cast rates the rarely deserved description of being a true dream cast. Marva Hicks is outstanding as Elaine, tracing her growth from young college girl to mature matriarch, painting her emotional growth and the intense depth of her love for her man. Curtiss Cook is a wonder as Russell, filling out his character to present someone literally struck by the power of love at first sight, transforming from a collegiate “Mr. Cool” to a man who realizes the worth of his woman and his continuing luck in receiving the great gift of her love. Hicks and Cook together paint a powerfully realistic portrait of two people who have found that rare gift of lasting love. Finally, there is Sarah Vaughan, here interpreted by Tamar Ashley Davis. A young woman with a spectacular singing voice, she pulls off the difficult feat of evoking the spirit and style of “the Divine One” while simultaneously leaving her own stamp on the role of Sarah. She even had the ability to handle a sound problem during the first act while staying completely in character, making an artist’s choice as both Tamar and Sarah that caught the audience by surprise and made the song’s climax all the more thrilling.

A special mention must go out to musical director Nat Adderley Jr. and the fine jazz trio, a select group of artists in the New Brunswick area, who appear on stage and accompany Sarah’s numbers throughout the show. Jazz aficionados will recognize Adderley for his career-spanning work with Luther Vandross as well as his lineage; Mr. Adderley is the son of composer and jazz trumpeter Nat Adderley, and the nephew of alto sax legend Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.

It was a rare opening-night treat to see playwright Stephanie Barry introducing Carl and Elsie Berry, the models for Russell and Elaine Torbry, and bringing them on stage to receive a standing ovation from the audience. Cliché as it may sound, the theater was filled with love and appreciation for the talents that brought this musical play to the stage of the Crossroads Theatre. You owe it to yourself and the one you love, whether that love be in its early beginnings or matured by the years, to make the trip to New Brunswick to see Sarah Sings a Love Story.

Sarah Sings a Love Story, presented by the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, runs through March 26th.

For tickets and information, visit www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.