When Gary Holmes was ten years old, he met a man who would change the course of his life. Gary was visiting his father at work, a bank in Wurtsboro New York, and his dad introduced him to J. C. Johnson, an African-American jazz pianist and composer. Gary had just started taking piano lessons and loved music and the two developed an unlikely friendship that lasted until J. C.'s death in 1981. Having written 500 songs, some with Fats Waller, for such luminaries as Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, J. C. Johnson told the young lad, his protege, that he wanted his music preserved in a book musical and he would like Gary to write it. That was quite a responsibility to lay on a youth but Gary rose to the challenge. It may have taken him decades to complete the work but it is now ready for its Connecticut premiere.
Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury will be jumpin' and jivin' until Sunday, June 11 with "Trav'lin The 1930's Harlem Musical" by Gary Holmes and Allan Shapiro, featuring two dozen of J. C. Johnson's flavorful hits. As Allan Shapiro recollected, The tunes have a "jazzy, tuneful character...with a natural bounce and swing that is infectious. Gary and I wove vintage songs seamlessly into the script. There is an emotional quality to his music, with a great deal of empathy for the human condition. J. C. knew how silly people can be, especially about love."
"Trav'lin" concerns the lives of three couples living in Harlem in the 1930's, in their twenties, thirties and fifties. George Walker is a retired Pullman porter and deacon of the local church and unofficial mayor of the town. He meets a stranger to him, a woman who introduces herself as Ethel from Mississippi, when she is actually his sweetheart Billie from forty years ago in New Orleans. Lothair Eaton is wonderfully warm and welcoming as George and he does not recognize Miche Braden as his long lost love.
Archie, a numbers runner who travels by train, has a rocky relationship with Roz, who owns a hair salon. They bicker and tease in an off and on courtship that is fun to witness. Archie's Teren Carter is a lively bundle of nerves as he dances around Yewande Odetoyinbo's long suffering Roz. The youngest couple are the eager for love Ella, a heart on her sleeve Cherry Torres, who falls instantaneously for Nelson, a sincere and sensitive Jacobi Hall. All the men have been or still are traveling men and the women have waited and waited for their return. Wonderful tunes like "Somebody Loses, Somebody Wins," "Empty Bed Blues," "Hold My Hand," "You Better Finish What You Started with Me," "Trav'lin," "Louisiana," "You'll Come BackTo Me" and "Let's Do, Let's Do, Let's Do" push the story forward and help develop the characters.
This jazzy musical has a contemporary feel as the score shines under the musical direction of John DiPinto, with set designed by Stephen Dobay, lighting by Keith A.Truax, projections by Christopher Ash, costumes by Janell Berte and choreography and overall direction by Paul Stancato. The result of all their efforts is one delightful evening of pleasure, one that J. C. Johnson would approve of heartily.
For tickets ($39.50-54), call Seven Angels Theatre, 1 Plank Road, Waterbury at 203-757-4676 or online at www.SevenAngelsTheatre.org. Performances are Thursday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m, Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Catch the spirit and joy of this tribute to J. C. Johnson that will have you bouncing in your seat, tapping your feet and snapping your fingers happily.