Thursday, March 13, 2008

Carter's Way (The SOB Review)

Carter's Way (The SOB Review) - Downstairs Theatre, Steppenwolf, Chicago, IL

** (out of ****)

"Sometimes, the flaws are the most interesting part of the performance."

- Oriole Carter, Carter's Way

Yet sometimes they aren't.

Despite many a flawless performance in sight, ranging from some genuinely intelligent, heartfelt portrayals to some fancy finger work on display through its coterie of jazz musicians, Carter's Way nevertheless has its share of flaws that can be downright frustrating.

Rather than serving as the most interesting parts of the performance, they relegate this play with music to one that looks and feels like a work that's still very much in progress, one in search of the appropriate beat. By having his lead character Oriole Carter tossing off a key line like the one in my opening, its efficacy is as if playwright and director Eric Simonson is laying down a gauntlet, daring his audience to dismiss any portion of the work, regardless of its warts.

Never mind that Carter's Way hits so many of the right notes. Its examination of artistic freedom and eccentricities -- in this case, the evolution of jazz in Depression-era Kansas City -- colliding with the same period's flawed, overt racial discrimination and flawed laws forbidding interracial relationships certainly strikes a valiant chord, comprising the most interesting and promising aspects of this performance.

But the real flaws revolve around missing plot points and its lacking in fully realized character development. Chief among them is the arrogant Oriole, played by the amazing James Vincent Meredith who tries desperately to wring out every last ounce of what he's given to work with as a revolutionary master saxaphone player with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Show Me State. Yet Simonson only allows glimpses into his heart, pigeonholing him to one-note wonder status.

His arrogance has already placed him out of tune with his former love Marilyn Stokes (portrayed with gutsy gusto by the superb Ora Jones). It's also contributed to his dubious future as a headliner with the Planet Mars, a jazz joint within Kansas City's limits officially run by Pewee Abernathy (the sensational K. Todd Freeman), yet actually controlled by the mob's jazz-hating boss Jack Thorpe (Robert Breuler) and his foot soldier-cum-recording entrepreneur Johnny Russo (Keith Kupferer).

Why then is it that when Johnny brings around his moll Eunice Fey (Anne Adams) to Planet Mars, Oriole's artistry alone serves as an unbelievable force of nature, pulling her irresistibly into an orbit of love? Never mind his snubs bordering on the abusive. Sure, there's a glimmer of heart worn on Oriole's sleeve when in his continued efforts to rebuff Eunice's entreaties, he reveals that earlier, he had been forced to serve time simply for the appearance of being with a white woman. But it's not enough to make us believe they'd be drawn together.

That they are is less a case of against all odds than against better judgment. Save for his music, and try as Meredith might, there's just too little heart imbued in Oriole to make him a convincing star-crossed lover; similarly, there's just not quite enough soul in Adams' Eunice, a wannabe jazz singer, to lend plausibility toward Oriole risking everything to be with her. Any man found messing with a mobster's doll, irrespective of the color of his skin, would likely meet the same fate. Someone with Oriole's street smarts would surely know better.

Still, there is much to enjoy, especially Darrell Leonard's rousing jazz pieces complemented by Jones' surprising singing voice. Nearly flawless, Jones' performance proves to be the most interesting part of Carter's Way.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

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