By Lynn Venhaus
Guaranteed to put a spring in your step and a song in your heart, “Eubie!” is a sparkling and joyous tribute to one of the groundbreaking talents of the 20th century.
The Black Rep’s third time presenting a musical revue of American musician and composer Eubie Blake’s greatest hits is musical theater of the finest caliber.
The convivial cast, high-spirited choreography, cheerful musical numbers, elegant costumes, and silky-smooth orchestra combine for an uplifting production.
The musical extolling the talents of James Hubert “Eubie” Blake over his long, lauded career, especially his achievements in the early 1900s that helped spark the fabled Harlem Renaissance in the ‘20s and ‘30s, was the of the toast of the 1978-1979 Broadway season, nominated for three Tony Awards, including Eubie’s score and Gregory Hines’ performance. Blake died in 1983 at 96 years old.
With his 1921 musical, “Shuffle Along,” he and lyricist Noble Sissle helped break down racial barriers because it was the first Broadway musical written, directed by and starring black Americans. It also helped shape American musical theater as we know it today.
In 2006, his album “The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake” from 1969 was included in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board. They annually select music that is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
This effervescent cast has individual standouts but really comes together as an ensemble to celebrate Eubie’s contributions in ragtime, jazz, and popular music. Director Ron Himes’s thorough knowledge of the piece and the song styles helps expertly extract the very best from the cast, which has five performers making their Black Rep debut (DeAnte Bryant, Serdalyer Darden, Carvas Pickens, Tamara PiLar, and J’Kobe Wallace).
Himes deftly stages the group numbers – ‘Shuffle Along,” “I’m Just Simply Full of Jazz,” “High Steppin’ Days,” and “Roll Jordan” with polished and buoyant dance designed by master choreographers Heather Beal and Vivian Watt. Such verve!
Noteworthy in the Black Rep’s last musical, “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” in 2019, the multi-faceted Robert Crenshaw stars and designed the tap choreography, He dances with such joy, that when he’s performing a solo number, it’s extraordinary, especially in “Low Down Blues” and “Hot Feet.”
In perhaps Blake’s most well-known song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” Crenshaw joined Evann De-Bose, Coda Boyce, Samantha Madison and PiLar for a rousing rendition.
Crenshaw opened the show with Boyce and Venezia Manuel, performing the jolly “Charleston Rag” and “Good Night Angeline” in the prologue.
Boyce, so good in “The African Company Presents Richard III” at the Black Rep last year, shows off her vocal chops in “Craving for That Kind of Love” and her playful moves in “Baltimore Buzz” with Manuel and lithe Bryant and Wallace.
The acrobatic moves of Bryant and Wallace are eye-popping and crowd-pleasing, and add pizzazz to the music numbers, Wallace is especially impressive in “Dixie Moon” and “Got to Get the Getting While the Gittin’s Good.”
Newcomer Darden has a good time with “I’m a Great Big Baby” and other solos of note include PiLar in “Daddy,” and De-Bose in “Memories of You.”
PiLar has a terrific duet with powerful-voiced Pickens in “My Handyman Isn’t Handy Anymore.”
They both have a good time with the cast in a fun, very theatrical number “If You Never Been Vamped by a Brownskin, You’ve Never Been Vamped At All,” where they take on roles of The Vamp, wife, husband, judge, bailiff and jury.
Taijah Silas is part of the 11-person ensemble, and they all move with vigor and enthusiasm.
Music Director Joe Dreyer, who also plays piano, is a virtuoso musician, and seamlessly leads a superb orchestra of Chris Tomlin on tuba, Bernard Long on drums, Anthony Wiggins on trumpet and Harvey Lockhart on saxophone. They are behind a scrim, but they breeze through the music catalogue with aplomb.
The musicians are part of this dream team that delighted in delivering a beautiful lesson in music appreciation of an earlier era.
The sound design by Justin Schmitz is splendid, and so is the look of the production, with impressive lighting design by Jasmine Williams and scenic design by Tim Jones setting the atmosphere through the decades.
Costume Designer Marc W. Vital II’s exceptional craftsmanship captured the period’s glamour perfectly.
It’s rare when you get to experience not only the cast having the best time on stage, but the audience thoroughly engaged and enchanted with the vitality of those involved.
“Eubie!” closes the Black Rep’s 46th season on a high note.
The Black Rep presents the musical revue “Eubie!” from May 3 to May 21 at the Edison Theatre on the Washington University campus. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.theblackrep.org
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.