Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical
Also see Rebecca's review of Backing Track
B. Jeffrey Madoff worked closely with Lloyd Price himself to write the book for Personality, which sets the original teen idol's biography to the best of his impressive R&B catalogue. In 1952, teenager Lloyd Price released his first hit "Lawdy Miss Clawdy". In less than a year it took him from digging pits for septic tanks to selling a million records and tearing down the "race wall" that kept Black artists from having their music sold in white stores.
A prolific singer and songwriter, Price's rhythm-and-blues hits brought young people of different races together before the civil rights movement began, and provided the seed for what would become rock and roll. His career came to a halt when he was drafted into the war in Korea, but Price came back to write his biggest hits, "Personality" and "Stagger Lee." A true pioneer, Price was the first musician of any color to start his own label. He was also the first Black man to open a nightclub south of Harlem. In 1995 "Lawdy" was added to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll. Price himself was inducted in 1998.
At a moment when many theater companies are understandably scaling back, Epps's production goes big: an ensemble large enough to fill the stage, huge talent, lots of high energy dance numbers, and a dazzling array of period costumes. Glittering evening gowns, dapper tuxedos, 1960s-style shifts, and a bevy of snazzy suits are all part of Karen Perry's impeccable costume design. Edgar Godineaux's sparkling choreography is exuberant, with the ensemble clearly having a ball while they're cutting a rug. The singing is even better, with powerful vocalists in the lead roles and supporting cast.
Price is portrayed by two actors in this production. Saint Aubyn narrates throughout and represents the adult, post-war version of Price, while Nathaniel Washington plays young Lloyd. Suave and beguiling, Aubyn carries the show with a cool confidence befitting Mr. Personality himself. Washington is endearingly earnest. When the session musicians start giving him a hard time, Washington's awkward embarrassment is palpable. When he starts to sing for them the whole house gets chills.
Miles Boone is spot on as Little Richard singing his smash hit "Tutti Frutti." Desireé Murphy gives the production's most emotionally compelling performance as Price's wife Emma. There is a great unpolished gravitas to Stanley Wayne Mathis's depiction of Prince's manager and partner Logan. An impressive array of talented dancers and vocalists make up the ensemble, but Donnie Hammond's turn as Sister Rosetta stands out. Her rendition of "Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air" is remarkable.
Personality is also remarkable for its sense of optimism. As a Black man living in America in the 1950s, Price had to navigate a system that was overtly and unapologetically discriminatory. Throughout his career Price faced many obstacles born of racism in the music industry and beyond. Price acknowledges those injustices, but always seems to understand them as solvable problems rather than hopeless impediments. I suspect this unique perspective comes from Price's extensive involvement in crafting the story. Clearly he was someone who got things done when no one else could even imagine they were was possible.
Price passed away in 2021 before he could see this musical in all its glory. Even as I enjoyed watching Personality it felt frustrating that Price's story has been largely forgotten. How could a trailblazer who overcame so much be relegated to obscurity? Fortunately, Price and B. Jeffrey Madoff understood that our collective willingness to forget is just one more challenge to overcome. Personality is a fantastic new musical that will keep Lloyd Price's life and music on our minds from decades to come.
Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical runs through April 3, 2022, at People's Light Leonard C. Haas Stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern PA. For tickets and information, please visit peopleslight.org or call 610-644-3500.