Friday, June 9, 2017

"Grandeur" ☼ ☼ ☼

It is rewarding for an audience to absorb pieces of a story and have them come together at the end to reveal the heart of the show. Perhaps we have war and revolution and the vastness of a snowbound continent, but ultimately we care more about Zhivago and Lara. Our brains love the details, but our hearts are involved with more intimate matters.

Sadly, the opposite seems true in the World Premiere of Han Ong's "Grandeur." There is no big story, only details. If you are an ardent fan of the words and music of the late Gil Scott-Heron, you may relish the story of the older Scott-Heron (Carl Lumbly), towards the end of his life, being interviewed by the young and fawning journalist Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan). Scott-Heron reveals little, he speaks in riddles that the younger man takes to be signs that his hero has not lost his touch. Scott-Heron's sort-of-niece, Miss Julie (Safiya Fredericks) has a role that feels undefined -- except that she certainly shares Scott-Heron's revolutionary ideal.

In real life, Gil Scott-Heron, even in his prime of the early 1970s, was an acquired taste. Brilliant at times but also a substance abuser, his reputation suffered as he continued to decline to show up at his concerts. For some fans, this was a plus -- the poet refusing to knuckle under to the demands of the commercial marketplace. But though he is played to KJAZ-deejay laconic perfection by Carl Lumbly, our story is not with Scott-Heron, who remains static, but with Steve Barron. Will this young man become a true hero, or is he simply another opportunistic writer attempting to further his own career by scoring cocaine for the old man and then writing about the experience?

The Supertitles at the beginning of Act 2 suggest the latter.

World Premieres are often raw and things always change as the show advances. We are aware that we are watching historical fiction, that no such encounter as is enacted here ever really occurred. So we wish we were left with something at least moderately uplifting. It is somewhat surprising that Scott-Heron's estate would allow such an unflattering, if fictional, portrait.

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives "Grandeur" Three Stars. Any show with Carl Lumbly is worth seeing and loose ends will become tied up as the run proceeds. We particularly enjoyed Ray Oppenheimer's subdued lighting, which becomes part of our understanding of this latter part of Scott-Heron's life. Also, Sara Huddleston has thrown in some terrific blues guitar at the show's beginning and during intermission.

The CD spoken of in the show, "I'm New Here," is real. It was the comeback album that never quite came back. The CD was released in 2010. Scott-Heron died in 2011.

The Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason, San Francisco
Through June 25, 2017

No comments: