Melba Moore’s one-woman autobiographical music drama, “Melba Moore: Sweet Songs of the Soul,” opens Crossroads Theater Company’s 2007-’08 season. Accompanied on stage by music director Levi Barcourt on piano, with — behind a scrim — Ryan Cavan (drums), Belden Bullock (bass), Doug Monro (guitar), and Travis Milner (second keyboard), Moore tells and sings the story of her life.
The story begins in her early childhood in New York City, where she was raised by various older relatives while her mother was touring the country as a singer. It continues through her early successes, followed by her difficult years, which include dealing with an unfaithful lover, an IUD that caused an infection that nearly killed her, and a scheming husband who made off with her considerable fortune, then segues to her reemergence as a successful entertainer.
Moore first came to national notice in 1967 when she appeared on Broadway, creating the secondary role of Dionne in “Hair.” She went on to replace Diane Keaton in the leading role, becoming the first black actress to replace a white actress in a leading role in a Broadway show. She was later to take over the role of Fantine in the Broadway production of “Les Miserables,” becoming the first black actress to play that part on Broadway. Her performance as Lutiebelle Gussiemae Jenkens in the Broadway musical “Purlie” led to another first — her becoming the first black actress to win a Tony award for best supporting actress in a musical.
Moore went on to concentrate more on her singing and recording career, receiving two Grammy nominations. She is known for singing a wide variety of music, from rhythm and blues to jazz, gospel, and folk. She is also known for her ability to hold a note steady for over half a minute and for her four-octave range. Anyone who is unimpressed by that half-minute held note should try simply holding his breath for 30 seconds, never mind singing.
In “Sweet Songs of the Soul” Moore as a young girl is totally convincing, and we can believe that she is growing up and growing older as she continues the narrative. She is impressively frightening at presenting a darker period from the late 1980s to the early ’90s, when she dropped out of the entertainment world and was no longer a public figure. When she arrives at the present, it is hard to believe we are listening to the singing of a woman who will be 62 at the end of this month. Her voice shows none of the strain one would expect of someone who went from fame and wealth to living on welfare, none of the strain that comes simply from aging, and for that matter none of the strain that comes from singing with such a wide range of pitch and volume.
Moore is ably accompanied, sometimes by Levi Barcourt on piano and frequently by the other musicians as well. Barcourt, who has recorded with Moore, has a few solo moments of his own.
“Sweet Songs of the Soul” will probably appeal most to those familiar with the shows Moore appeared in or the music she sings. It will probably also appeal to those familiar with gospel music. Although Moore asked the audience to sing along the night I attended, many of them had been doing so all along, and many others had been beating out the rhythm with their hands and feet. Even those not familiar with the music she sings will find her impressive. But the show is not for everybody. Some of the sordid details associated with her bad years are more than some people want to deal with when they go to the theater. And some may find the degree of audience participation makes it hard to listen to what’s happening on stage. But a great many people are likely to find “Sweet Songs of the Soul” both an impressive and an entertaining night at the theater.
Ricardo Khan, the founding artistic director of Crossroads, serves as creative designer. Sarah Lambert is scenic designer, producing a set that is simple but serviceable. Shirley Prendergast is the lighting designer, and ‘Femi Sarah Heggie the production manager.
After a period of financial instability — Crossroads was closed from 2000 to 2002 — the theater seems to have gotten back on its feet. A new executive director, Marshall Jones III, is on board, the terrible deficit is no longer threatening the company, and hopes are high that it will go on to return to its lodestar position. Certainly the 2007-’08 season seems to be off to a good start. Clearly, Melba Moore’s many fans will want to come to Crossroads to see this production, but even those who are not familiar with Moore’s work should find much here to entertain.
Melba Moore: Sweet Songs of the Soul, through Sunday, October 7, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Autobiographical music production written and performed by Moore. Through narrative and a mix of jazz, gospel, and Broadway tunes, Moore chronicles her story about hardships, men, and money. Her four-octave voice is backed by Levi Barcourt’s band. Moore originated the role of Dionne in Broadway’s “Hair” in 1969. $40 to $55. 732-545-8100.