Always & Forever at Illusion Theater
In case you missed its first go-round, or you just can’t get enough of R&B love, the locally conceived and realized “Always & Forever” returns in all its boomer-era wonderfulness to the Illusion Theater. Set in a barber shop (it had to be set someplace, and this place is as good as any), four guys sing about their take on love, using classic tunes by some of the greats – Sam Cooke, Barry Gordy, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the like.
With only snippets of dialogue interrupting the musical flow, each character carved a personality niche and a role in the sketchy but serviceable plot that got us from one song to another. But who needs dialogue when there’s “You Send Me,” “Tears of a Clown” and “I’ll Be Around?”
T. Michael Rambo, played the affable barbershop owner, Durius Wright, functioning as a father to teenager Jahmal, played by Jackson Hurst, though the relationship was never clear. Dennis Spears camped it up as the philandering Leviticus Tucker, who spent much of the time when he wasn’t singing and dancing – and even while he was singing and dancing – on the phone with his ladies.
Backed by Music Director, Sanford Moore, on keys and a tight group of strong playrs, Rambo’s and Spear’s powerful vocals rocked a full house of local fans – particularly Spears’ “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Hurst showed he has the smooth vocals to bridge the generation gap with a charming “Just My Imagination,” and cool moves on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” then delivering on the comedy with Spears on “Let’s Get It On.”
As much as Spears has the voice and versatility, there’s a point at which all the attention is on the performer and the song is more or less oh-by-the-way. That’s his style. I prefer to have a singer put the song front and center. Rambo, too, kind of beat up on “When a Man Loves a Woman, one of the world’s greatest love songs, but proved he’s got some pianissimo pipes, too, with “Betcha By Golly Wow,” which was very sweet indeed.
But it was Julius C. Collins III as Jones who stole the show, finessing “Where is the Love,” and “I’ll Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” with tender phrasing and subtle embellishment. Beautiful music just sort of fell out of his mouth.
I was hoping for something of an acoustic presence for the music, given that the Illusion has a fairly intimate house, but that was not the case, and since the singers were wearing mics, they didn’t have the option of working the mic as they might have, which made the sound operator’s job that much more hectic, chasing dynamics and balancing levels. There’s still some work to be done in this area to carve out frequencies for the vocals to create a more pleasant mix. (But would they finish the costumes after the show opened?)
But this is good fun, and if hip-hop represents the sum total of your kids’ or grandkids’ musical palette, you owe it to them to prove that there was once another kind of music that also defined a culture and won fans around the world.
Always & Forever runs through October 3.