Divas of song and spirit
By Carolyn Hayes
Plowshares Theatre Company begins 2013 by making good on its mission of “Celebrating the Black Woman” for the 2013 season. Arranged by artistic director Gary Anderson, “The Divas Project” is a world-premiere musical revue in homage to a half-century of American legends of popular music. Readers should note I attended and reviewed the production’s sole preview performance before its official opening, but the prowess of the show’s professional musicians and its atmosphere of lighthearted fun were already well in evidence.
This is a show that doesn’t waste time on external fanfare. The theater space (within Detroit’s Boll Family YMCA) boasts only instruments, stands and stools for a set; with seating on three sides and an underlying burgundy cast to the low lighting scheme, the atmosphere falls somewhere between rehearsal space and cabaret. The show itself begins just as inauspiciously: Instrumentalists and singers file in and kick up the music. What follows are around 20 numbers, mostly solos, made famous by divas through the decades, including Ella Fitzgerald, Jill Scott, Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu, Donna Summer, and Etta James. Add in little breathers of banter, and that’s all the production is – and with musicianship like this, that’s all it needs.
A stellar quartet of keyboard, drums, bass, and trumpet – under the music direction of Chad Hughes and Antwan Gardner – neither leads nor follows, but keeps in rapt sync with the lead vocalist no matter what the genre – be it jazz, R&B, blues, or neo-soul, the combo handles it all with polish and frequent pealing trumpet interludes.
Similarly, it often falls to the non-featured singers to provide backup vocals, and whichever duo the task falls to reaches unison in quick moments of unspoken agreement. In solo, each of the show’s divas delivers solid baseline work and excels in at least one back-pocket torch song. Chelly K’s powerhouse belt opens up in her high range, whereas Ashaki Ziegler, the coy youngest diva, leans into lovely syncopation with her soulful alto. However, it’s Audrey Northington (answering to her moniker, “The Scat Diva”) who wins the room early and often, shamelessly working the crowd in hilarious ad libs that she backs up with her indomitable instrument.
With the focus placed squarely on music, there isn’t much specifically theatric in the production, with the exception of the connective patter between numbers. Although there is some acknowledgment of the diva artists who made these tunes famous, sprinkled with biographical details, this show wisely zooms in on the larger concept of the diva – specifically regarding the diva-ness of the night’s performers. To be clear, these women aren’t infamous prima-donna diva types, competitive or demanding; in fact, the ensemble functions in quite convivial accord and obvious support.
Instead, what characterizes these women as divas is their exacting confidence and poised self-possession. Unafraid to course correct on the fly, these are musicians in absolute command of their gifts and their surroundings, which makes for an invigorating viewer experience.
Plowshares very recently secured Thornetta Davis to join the three main divas for selected performances throughout the run, which may actually serve to propagate the revue’s breezy off-the-cuff, one-night-only feel. As it stands, “The Divas Project” achieves its goal of honoring past divas by serving up its own, in a no-frills concert event that encourages its viewers to do nothing more than clap along and enjoy.