San Bernardino Civic Light Opera's "Stringbean" looks authentic.
Looks can be deceiving.
Lanie Robertson's surprisingly powerful star-is-born melodrama is presented as a realistic play about Ethel Waters. It is nothing of the kind.
The illusion is strengthened by Leslie Uggams' performance. Her voice shares with Waters a polish and sweetness that distinguish it from the blues-belters who were Waters' contemporaries, and she has the same sense of theatricality that enabled Waters to become a stirring dramatic actress.
There is also physical resemblance. Waters was so slender as a beginner that she was called "Stringbean." Uggams has the figure for the role and a suggestion of Waters' round facial features.
Still, "Stringbean" is not about the real Waters.
In Robertson's script, Waters arrives at a Harlem speak-easy, Edmond's Cellar, in 1919, straight from a job in Tuscaloosa, carrying a chicken with her as an emblem of her "country colored" style. She's hired by the joint's white owner, Mule Johnson (Geoff Pierson), after she agrees to sing a nostalgic plantation song, "I'm Coming, Virginia," which she detests.
She knocks 'em dead--much to the resentment of Mule's hophead wife Seal (Lyn Greene). Sexual voltage surges between Mule and his new star, but she goes on to fame and fortune elsewhere.
Stop reading now if you don't want to know the ending of the play, for it must be addressed:
Eight years later, Waters returns to the old dive for a reunion, prompting the jealous Seal to kill Mule, who had planned to leave her for Waters. Five years after that, Waters introduces her biggest hit ever, "Stormy Weather," at the Cotton Club, as a testimonial to her love for Mule, vowing to leave show business thereafter and become a maid.
A quick reading of Waters' 1950 autobiography, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," reveals how inaccurate and ludicrous this scenario is. Waters had already been performing in New York when she was hired at Edmond's. She thought "I'm Coming, Virginia" was "a lovely song." She regarded Mule as a father figure and called him "Boss." Troubled Seal is wholly fictitious, and Waters was thinking of her own marriage when she introduced "Stormy Weather."
In a telephone conversation with director Glenn Casale, he acknowledged that most of the story is fictional and that he isn't even certain of the real "Mule's" race. Yet there are no disclaimers in the program. There are no "fantasy" signals in the script.
Waters' legitimate story is action-packed enough for a dozen plays. Why was it deemed necessary to invent another story altogether and attach her name to it? This is how history gets distorted.
Leaving this perplexing central issue aside, "Stringbean" has some sizzling moments. It's too long, and the California Theatre is too big for it, but the performances are in place, with especially notable work from David Downing as the bar's old bartender, whose plight is ultimately more heartbreaking than Stringbean's. Danny Holgate's musical direction is solid.
Robertson has made giant strides in narrative craftsmanship since his "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill." If he could drop the pretense of telling the Ethel Waters story, his new play might be a contender.
Leslie Uggams: Ethel Waters
Geoff Pierson: Mule
Lyn Greene: Seal
David Downing: Gator
Clayton Cameron: Sammy
Robert Boardman: Harold Arlen
William Foster McDaniel: Jackson
Michael Cal Stewart: Lovett
Jason Pratt: Thomas
Michael Fleming: Harley
Produced for Empire Productions by C. Dale Jenks in association with Grahame Pratt. By Lanie Robertson. Director Glenn Casale. Musical director and arranger Danny Holgate. Sets Joanne Trunick McMaster. Lights Phil Monat. Uggams' costumes by Edguard Johnson.