The Michelle Obama musical opened Sunday night at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret.
Not really, but it might as well belong to her.
The musical "Sirens of Song" – conceived, written and directed by Kevin Ramsey – is the story of women, told through three divas, from the earliest day of the struggle for recognition and equality and to the eventual triumph of the soul.
It is truly a story like Obama’s – and like every girl and woman who walks her own walk even if strife and problems are in her path. Women overcome, get to where they want and become beautiful while also setting their own definitions of beauty. As one of the divas says, "A woman’s place is wherever her dreams can take her."
The early conceit of the show feels a little manufactured and complex. Three women from space come to America and take a song-filled journey through the evolution of women as a gender and woman as an individual. I found myself wondering what I'd gotten myself in to on an Easter Sunday night.
After the halting opening moments, though, this play just grabbed hold of my heart, the heart of any man with a woman in his life and, I'm sure, every woman in the audience. I shook my initial doubts and thought of my mother, my wife, my daughters, my sister and my granddaughter. It was impossible to resist the pull of the three ladies on the stage.
Ramsey is black and make no mistake about this, there is a certifiable line of the racial struggle for equality that runs through this production. The three divas on the stage –the sirens – are Bertilla Baker and Amelia Cormack, both white, and Maiesha McQueen, black.
The music runs from Otis Redding’s "Respect" to Henderson Luther’s "Ballin’ The Jack" to the Helen Reddy's feminine anthem "I Am Woman" and "Shout" by the Isley Brothers.
The three divas are all remarkable singers. Cormack is a pristine and soaring soprano who can be both a coloratura and slinky full of soul. Baker is the middle-of-the-road alto with a cute and precise voice. McQueen is the lusty soul singer with both gentleness and rough-hewn passion inside her wonderful voice.
Each of these women have moment after moment when the cabaret is wrapped in wonder.
Cormack delivers one of the best versions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" I have ever heard. Every contestant on "American Idol" and "The Voice" should be forced to watch how she handles this chestnut. She gives the song a unique delicacy, proving once again that less is often more, especially in the world of music.
Baker delivers "Life Begins at Forty" with all the seriousness and humor that the song carries.
"Conservative or sporty, it's not until you're forty
That you learn the how and why and the what and when
In the twenties and the thirties you want your love in large amounts
But after you reach forty, it's the quality that counts"
In the middle of a rocking version of "Shout," McQueen pauses to ask the pertinent question, "How can we ever allow anybody to tell us what pretty is?"
That question is reinforced by the casing that Ramsey did. The three divas are strikingly normal-looking women. No gilded models here. More like the women who live down the street and work at the desk next to you. They look like real people. And I mean that as a compliment.
This show still has moments that are curious and a little distracting.
Having the two white women in the cast dancing to rhythm and blues hits and doing the famed Temptation Walk seems more than a little out of place. When the three of them pay tribute to the girl groups of the '60s and '70s with "Soldier Boy," "Chapel of Love" and "My Boyfriend’s Back," it’s pretty clear that some of the soul of these songs has been sacrificed in favor of determinedly white three-part harmonies.
The power of those girl groups was that the girls were able to bring a different kind of soul music to the world, and that soul is clearly missing from this group of three divas. It's kind of like having Blake Shelton singing "This Is A Man's World."
Perhaps I missed the point here. Even with the occasional disconnects the show has a vibrant emotional tug. It’s possible that Ramsey wanted to point out that race doesn’t matter, as long as you have the music.
As Baker says early in the proceedings, "Music gives shape to liberty."
"Sirens of Song" runs through May 29 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
Production Credits: Director and Choreographer, Kevin Ramsey; Book, Pearl Ramsey and Kevin Ramsey’ Music direction Abdul Hamid royal; Scenic Designer, Scott Davis; Costume Designer Scott A.Rott; Lighting designer, Nick Belley; Vocal Arrangers, Raimundo Santos and Abdul Hamid Royal; Sound Designer, Megan B. Henninger; Casting Director, JC Clementz; Dramaturg, Brent Hazelton; Stage Manager Richelle Harrington Calin.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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