THEATER REVIEW : Beat is Strong and Colorful in 'State of the Art Heart'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One powerful scene in Spike Lee's 1991 film "Jungle Fever" depicts a group of black women discussing the problems they've experienced relating to black men. The women, in effect, conclude that there are no good husband candidates among the black male population.

"State of the Art Heart," a pop-rock operetta written by Ron Covington and Tonis Thomas, rebuts this notion. The musical, which premiered Thursday at the Kingston Playhouse, concerns an earnest black male who struggles to find a complete love relationship. At first, he is seduced by a glamorous, glitzy woman; later, he finds romance and virtue.

This morality musical, put on by Graves Communications, is ideal fare for the Blackfriars (formerly the Bowery) Theatre's Community Collaborations Outreach Program, a program to bring community theater projects to a professional setting. "State" suffers from several structural flaws and staging problems, but some clever concepts and techniques make this play a worthwhile endeavor.

The just-under-an-hour musical features 19 infectious funk, rap and soul songs performed by an interracial 10-person cast and a three-piece band. The songs stand on their own as catchy numbers, but a common thematic strain unifies the material.

In the musical-theater scheme of things, "State" falls somewhere between a traditional, plot-driven musical and a free-form musical revue. This show possesses a definite story line, but the characters are just thumbnail sketches rather than fully drawn-out personalities.

The story revolves around R Guy (Stacey Robinson), a smooth-talking man in search of love. Early in the play, R Guy fails to make any distinction between love and lust, and when he meets the lascivious Stella Star (Becky Saunders), he falls for her immediately. R Guy is quickly disenchanted with their sexually driven relationship, and he realizes he needs something more.

He finds what he's looking for in Z Woman (Natalie Turman), a caring, thoughtful, down-to-earth woman. He eventually abandons Stella for Z Woman, and the two live happily ever after.

Robinson plays R Guy with a smooth-talking grace and humor. Robinson's powerful singing voice is central to his performance, and he is excellent during his four featured songs. The actor also demonstrates an engaging stage demeanor throughout the show, interacting with the audience and drawing big laughs with his wide-eyed mannerisms.

Saunders and Turman are both fine as the two feuding women. Saunders is perfectly raunchy as the sex-starved Stella, and Turman portrays the girl-next-door ingenue with just enough sweetness and very little smarm.

Cleverly, Covington and Thomas incorporate two three-person choruses into the story. These choral characters comment on the action, provide advice for the three main characters and also carry on their own mini-dramas.

Ronald Christopher Jones and Rhys Greene are wonderful as R Guy's dancing, singing sidekicks. Both performers get a chance to steal the spotlight during brief solo numbers, and one wishes that each had more time center stage.

Unfortunately, the entire concept of "solo" seems to have been lost on director Anasa Briggs-Graves.

Briggs-Graves' direction overemphasizes constant on-stage activity. For instance, when one of the leads performs a solo number, the other characters almost always upstage the soloist by dancing, talking or creating some other peripheral distraction.

The constant buzz of activity gives the show the feel of a three-ring circus: there is always something to look at and one is never bored, but so much action eclipses the narrative progression. During the show's final number, "Wanna Get Busy With You," the stage is so busy one can't keep track of what's happening.

The dancing, choreographed by Donald Nathaniel Robinson, is full of infectious energy but suffers from several key technical problems. Most conspicuously, the athletic, big-movement dancing style is wholly inappropriate for the shallow Kingston Playhouse stage. The dancers look like they want to burst out and explode across the stage, but the venue does not facilitate such exuberance.

Also, Robinson's choreography proved much too intricate for the cast. The women, in particular, struggled to dance in unison as they boogied their way through the dance steps.

Steven Steppe's sets and lights are appropriately minimal. Steppe basically cleared the stage for the performers, adding only one artistic touch in crafting a raised platform loft for a seduction scene.

Bunny Mitchell's street-fashion costumes are bold and bright and straightforward, just like the rest of this simple, yet colorful production.

"STATE OF THE ART HEART"

By Ron Covington and Tonis Thomas. Director, Anasa Briggs-Graves. Choreography, Donald Nathaniel Robinson. Scenic, lighting and sound designer, Steven Steppe. Costumes, Bunny Mitchell. Stage manager, Tom Kaye. With Rhys Greene, Ronald Christopher Jones, Jodie Knutson, Wendel Lucas, Angela Newman, Stacey Roberts, Becky Saunders, Jeanette Sepulveda, Natalie Turman, Chris Bonner, Brian Faucette, Larry Johnson and Deborah McClelland. At 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through September 1. At the Kingston Playhouse, 1057 Kingston Ave., downtown. Tickets $12-$15. 232-4088.

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