"How will I ever have a career if I don't sound like everyone else?" doubts young tenor Roland Hayes at a supremely ironic point in "Breath and Imagination," Daniel Beaty's musical biography that opens the Colony Theatre's 39th season on a high note.
Rather than sounding like everyone else, it was Hayes' unique vocal style — infusing classical precision with the passion and devotion of Negro spirituals — that brought him international renown and set a trailblazing precedent for African Americans in the performing arts during the early 1900s.
Through brief narrative sketches framed by well-chosen song selections showcasing the singer's remarkable range, Saundra McLain's inspiring staging traces the transformation of Hayes (Elijah Rock) from impoverished son of former slaves-turned-tenant farmers to international sensation.
Rock's sensitive portrayal captures Hayes' determination to shape his own destiny, as well as his calm humility in the face of racial prejudice and resistance from his deeply religious mother (Karan Kendrick), who wanted him to become a preacher instead. Kevin Ashworth supplies piano accompaniment and a variety of supporting characters, most memorably the white music teacher who gave Hayes the training and encouragement to pursue his dream.
Kendrick's vocal prowess is evident out of the gate in spirituals that set the dominant chords of Hayes' life story. Rock's musical delivery is more nuanced, incorporating an initial hesitancy appropriate to the early stages of the singer's development, only to emerge with soul-stirring confidence in the mature Hayes' recitals of material ranging from gospel to lieder to opera.
Hayes' focus on transforming society through his art makes him a less dramatic figure than more activist black singers such as Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson who soon followed him — all the more reason to applaud the Colony Theatre's gutsy choice of material to help rescue the memory of this remarkable talent.
"Breath and Imagination," The Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends October 13. $25-$45. (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15 or www.colonytheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.