WITH INDIGO BLUME at the Family Theater / Kennedy Center

Kwame Alexander’s 2010 picture book for 5-8 year olds, Acoustic rooster and his barnyard group, secretly serves Jazz 101 for kids in Prokofiev style Pierre and the Wolf and Britten Youth guide to the orchestra introduce them to musical instruments. Alexander’s book, featuring characters like Mules Davis and Duck Ellington, isn’t just full of puns, it explains jazz and has its own glossary. Its 2011 title, Indigo Blume and the Garden City, presents its courageous 9-year-old heroine who teaches an urban district to go green and to grow our garden. In 2020, Alexander mixed up some of the characters from the two books to help kids understand that the show has to go on even when you’re a little afraid of getting up in front of groups and also having your parents like you. No matter. What Books are joys, but the 2021 mix of Alexander and Mary Rand Hess in this 70-minute musical production, at the Family Theater at Kennedy Center through November 28, has flaws. Let’s be done so the good news can follow.

Flaw 1: Invisible instrumentalists drown every word of every song. Between the director, Lili-Anne Brown, the sound designer, Kevin Lee Alexander, and whoever the sound operator is, this could be settled. But that would take the will to challenge the current “strong is good” fashion. Randy Preston’s songs deserve better, as do the actors who perform them. Flaw 2: The 5-year-old audience started going to the bathroom or beyond in the 40th minute. By minute 55, many of those left in the house were discussing the script. Theater for children / theater for young audiences is not new, nor are its principles; and worse yet, the attention spans of all ages have shortened. 70 minutes may be okay for 8-year-olds – younger ones deserve shows a little shorter than that. Flaw 3: Perhaps the permissions from the Duke Ellington Estate to sing a few bars were unattainable, but, alas, the sound puns that Duck Ellington kept talking about throughout the script fell flat. They don’t mean anything because it doesn’t have that song.

Kanysha Williams (as Indigo Blume), a good new triple threat graduate of DC’s Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts, actually has a fourth skill in her toolbox that cannot be taught or learned. In addition to her top notch singing, playing and dancing, she has the kind of energy that carries the shows. Williams reminded me of a few numbers from Cy Coleman’s shows that could / could be great in his audition portfolio: “Hey, Big Spender” by Sweet charity and “The Oldest Profession”, a jaw-dropping number, causing Tony (yelling at Lilias White) to Life. The kids in the audience, who don’t know anything about Coleman or Tonys, just loved him. Jaysen Wright (as Mules Davis) perfectly captures the voice of Miles Davis. Lauren Davis deftly switches from icky, Chickee Minaj (who seems alarmingly obsessed with bling and money in a play intended for children aged 5 to 8) to Indigo’s supportive and supportive mother; Davis can change a singing style in a snap. (Wig designer, Priscilla Bruce). It’s no discredit to good singer / actor Farrell Parker (as Dairy Parton) that Bruce’s Parton-esque wig for her and Erik Teague’s costume overshadow her performance a bit. Teague built an overskirt for the country / dairy singer from rows of bandanas. This is what Marie-Antoinette could wear to attend the Grand Old Opry. Teague’s diamond picks for Duck Ellington are less successful. The duke wore tails, tuxedos, suits; he could go without a tie in rehearsal or in the recording studio. But a diamond sweater and high diamond socks? Nah, man. Actor Vaughn Midder, however, wears Duck Ellington’s mallard-colored do-rag with panache. And speaking of plume, Teague adorns Randy Preston (as Acoustic Rooster) shoulder pads with reddish-brown feathers. His jacket, of course, is as red as a rooster’s ear. And speaking of acoustics. These 5 excellent singers could reach the bottom row of the Family Theater (and several other venues) without microphones. It’s time to rethink sound, mix and volume. Loud is not, in itself, an asset. Rather, it’s the empty calories of the theater. It is time for theaters to make and allow audiences to hear all the components of all songs. The spectators buy an entire seat and have the right to experience the entire show. The words of Acoustic Rooster’s Barnyard Boogie: with Indigo Blume maybe as good as the tunes were.

The brightly colored set by Arnel Sanciano perfectly completes the show and undoubtedly gives the little ones in the audience the impression of being in a coloring book. The Family Theater stage was a bit crowded when the 5 artists were working on these ensemble numbers; no problem for the choreographer Breon Arzell who created a compact boogie that allowed the actors to anticipate, but never out of breath. Let’s keep the electric slide alive even if 6 year olds have no idea.

For tickets for this world premiere commission, call 202.467.46.600 or visit https://www.kennedy-center.org/whats-on/explore-by-genre/young-audiences/2021-2022/acoustic-roosters -barnyard- boogie /

Photo by Jati Lindsay


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