“Oo-Bla-Dee” is a tale of self-creation and self-discovery

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"Oo-Bla-Dee" at Two River Theater with Stacey Sargeant and Monica J. Palmer. All photos by T. Charles Erickson.

Two River Theatre production features a LGBT Pride night on June 27

Two River Theatre closes out its 25th anniversary season with a new play-with-music, Regina Taylor’s Oo-Bla-Dee. Set in post-World War II America, it follows two journeys. One is a road trip from Missouri to Illinois. The other is a young woman’s journey into creating an identity for herself while discovering the kind of person she really is. While both journeys start out strongly, their outcomes are to an extent left unfulfilled.

"Oo-Bla-Dee" at Two River Theater cast
“Oo-Bla-Dee” at Two River Theater cast.

We are guided into the play by Luna C (Amber Iman), a representation of time and the moon. She also serves as a mentor and confidante to Gin Del Sol (Allison Semmes), a saxophone player. Gin has been invited to St. Louis by Shorty (Stanley Wayne Mathis), the manager of an all-female jazz band, to be a replacement. The band, led by down-on-her-luck singer/pianist/composer Evelyn Waters (Marva Hicks), is headed to Chicago to get a recording contract. Gin works to fit in to the band’s style, forming friendships with bassist Ruby (Monica J. Palmer) and percussionist Lulu (Stacey Sargeant) and winning Evelyn’s grudging acceptance. As the band gets closer to their audition for the contract, secrets in Gin’s past arise to threaten the band’s cohesiveness.

"Oo-Bla-Dee" with Chesney Snow at Two River Theater
“Oo-Bla-Dee” with Chesney Snow at Two River Theater. Photos by T. Charles Erickson

The score for Oo-Bla-Dee combines snippets of period songs with original music by Diedre J. Murray set to lyrics by Ms. Taylor. The original tunes are less a collection of songs as they are lines from the play–dialogues and monologues, both internal and external—set to music. The music itself is performed by an onstage quartet of musicians, led by pianist George Caldwell, with saxophonist Corinthia Cromwell, percussionist Eli Fountain, and bassist Mimi Jones. They are, to put it bluntly, outstanding. Also outstanding is Chesney Snow, another onstage musician listed in the cast as “Vocal Foley,” providing an amazing variety of sound effects—everything from a passing train to the passing of time–and beatboxing, using only his voice and a microphone.

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"Oo-Bla-Dee" cast at Two River Theater
“Oo-Bla-Dee” cast at Two River Theater. All photos by T. Charles Erickson

Ruben Santiago-Hudson guides his cast into delivering performances laced with emotional truth. Amber Iman’s Luna C was a cool, aloof presence, befitting one who personifies the distant moon. Marva Hicks as Evelyn set off sparks as a female musician trying to survive in a difficult at best profession amidst memories of past glories and desire for her man to return from the war. Allison Semmes’s Gin struggles with creating an independent persona while facing a world where society would soon crowd women into the wife-and-mother roles from which the war released them. Monica J. Palmer was a solid, almost motherly figure as Ruby, while Stacey Sargeant’s large-living Lulu provided comic relief. As for Stanley Wayne Mathis’ portrayal of Shorty, it is a remarkable creation of a man taking on almost impossible tasks while dealing with the reality of racism at the time. Shorty is a potentially richer character than what we see in Oo-Bla-Dee, and one wishes his full story might be put on stage.

"Oo-Bla-Dee" with Amber Iman at Two River Theater
“Oo-Bla-Dee” with Amber Iman at Two River Theater.

Oo-Bla-Dee is a musical play that demands a little more attention than one normally gives to such works. It is a show containing much talent and some beautiful pieces of stagecraft, but it may leave its audiences with a feeling of matters left unresolved. Serious theatregoers should make the effort to see it, even if they are not totally satisfied by play’s end. It is for such theatregoers that I recommend going to Two River Theatre in Red Bank to see Oo-Bla-Dee.

Oo-Bla-Dee is presented by Two River Theatre at the Rechnitz Theatre in Red Bank through June 30, 2019. For tickets and information, visit tworivertheater.org.

Note: On Thursday, June 27, 2019, Two River Theatre is hosting its second annual Pride Night on the Plaza. Starting at 6pm. There will be live performances by Lady Celestina, Rhedd Rhumm, and other local drag artists, along with appetizers and (for those 21 and older) wine and beer. Attendees are also invited to attend that evening’s 8pm performance of Oo-Bla-Dee for a discounted ticket price. Tickets for Pride Night only are $10; tickets for Pride Night and Oo-Bla-Dee are $40 ($30 for those under 30). To purchase tickets to Pride Night call the Two River Theatre box office at 732-345-1400.