A scene from “Katrina,” the recently closed musical put on by Walking on Water Productions. (Photo provided)

A scene from “Katrina,” the recently closed musical put on by Walking on Water Productions.

 

For its third production, Walking on Water Productions (WoW) has birthed and nurtured a brand-new musical, no small feat. 

In “Katrina,” Liz Bauman and David Frumkin tackle a huge subject, a devastating hurricane and the tragedies and heroics of a great city, New Orleans. New to the craft, the result is decidedly mixed. There are some touching and buoyant songs, and several intriguing characters. Yet the production is scattershot as Bauman tries to encompass both individual stories and the national response, with a widely veering tonality. 

Trapped within the wrappings of a capital ‘M’ Musical (a bright opening number, a romance, a comic supporting character, etc.) are the bones of an intriguing chamber musical, evident mainly in the songs given to the supporting ensemble. 

But for this show to have a future, a critical flaw must be addressed: a white-centered narrative about black people. 

Can we just declare a moratorium on stories of white people finding ‘enlightenment’ through the suffering of black people? Bauman and Frumkin are hardly alone in falling into this trope--the Oscar-winning “Green Book” is just one of the innumerable instances of this insistence of white people to make a multi-racial story about us.

Producer, director and choreographer Priscilla Hummel deserves huge credit for reaching out to local actors and musicians of color, and for building a structure to give this new work its full due. There is a generosity to the performances, and a strong cohesion among the cast which are the hallmark of a director’s caring attention. 

Hummel tripped up in tackling a busy script in too literal a fashion; the numerous set changes this necessitated constantly interrupted the flow. These problems were abetted by an awkward set and an arbitrary lighting design.

Music director Benjamin Stevens conducted a first-rate band (scintillating orchestrations by Anna Marcus-Hecht) and drew powerful choric effects from the cast.

The supporting ensemble was dynamic: Emily Aviles, Sirus Desnoes, Joshua Dykes, Kimmi Neuschulz, Alek Osinski and Karen Veaner. They sang with clarity and grace and wove a sense of a larger community. As the Street Musician, London McDaniel gave an authentic taste of New Orleans.

From mere whisps of text and song, Cynthia Henderson gave weight, heft and dignity to Violet, a single black mother who undergoes great loss. The specificity of her acting was also evident in her singing, each song a crafted story. 

Also anchoring the show was Adara Alston’s spirit woman, Larinda; Alston etched a believable community ‘mother’ with honesty and detail, and she brought an emotional fervor to the Act One close as “Katrina” makes landfall.

The stellar voice and steady presence of Grace Taore as Violet’s doomed daughter Jasmine completed this triptych of the black community. Her duet with Henderson was particularly tender.

Among the principal white characters, Jaime Warburton brought an edge to the working poor Marie while Andrew Hudson-Sabens brought gorgeous vocal colors and a light touch to Beau.

The show centers on Sam, a white bar-owner who must learn compassion in the musical’s simplistic set-up. Bernie Sheredy’s performance was oddly diffident and disconnected from the otherwise fully engaged cast.

There are the hints of a different and affecting musical here. They lie in the trio of the characters of Violet, Jasmine and Larinda, and in a few ensemble songs: especially “Rain, Rain on Ponchartrain” and the closing hymn-like “The Waters Rise.”

Walking on Water

“Katrina,” book & lyrics by Liz Bauman, music & lyrics by David Frumkin; Walking on Water. This show has ended.

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