Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Timbuktu!
The St. Louis Black Repertory
Review by Richard T. Green


Drummond Crenshaw (seated),
Duane Martin Foster (right), and Cast

Photo by Keshon Campbell
You'll definitely come out humming the tunes, after Timbuktu! at the Black Repertory Theatre. The two and a half hour show gains comic power (almost in spite of itself) in the second half, as two young lovers are moved around the stage like a game of "three-card monte" in a beautiful revival directed by Black Rep founder Ron Himes.

The singing is great, and the show's con-men and -women add plenty of delightful twists and turns. It's the award-winning all-Black version of the 1953 musical Kismet, a Golden Age show that was co-written by Luther Davis and Charles Lederer using the melodies of Alexander Borodin, with lyrics and additional music by George Forrest and Robert Wright. The musical Kismet was based on the original 1911 play of the same name, a tale of exotic romance by Edward Knoblock. (My Middle Eastern spouse pronounces it "Ghesnmat," which roughly translates as "your portion," or perhaps "the hand you were dealt.")

Anyway, both of the subsequent musical versions feature great songs like "Stranger in Paradise" and "Baubles, Bangles and Beads." And the 1978 all-Black version is now getting a melodic new staging (thanks in large part to great singers and music director Colin Healy) at the Edison Theatre at Washington University.

The 1953 songs, carried forward in 1978's Timbuktu!, gain dramatic intensity with the addition of African folk music and striking tribal-style percussion live on stage by Caph P. Guei. And from artful, intense dance specials choreographed by Haley Rhiney. The original Timbuktu! ran just six months on Broadway, but earned four Tony Award nominations, including one for Luther Davis (bookwriter) for Most Innovative Revival (of his own 1953 show).

That said, 46 years after the first Timbuktu!, the night I went, there were a lot of tiny little dead spots in the production, in between all the bright spotlight moments. And the two young lovers, played by the very likable Amarachi Kalu (as Sahleem-La-Luum) and Dereis Lambert (as The Mansa), suffered grievously from dead microphones at the beginnings of each of their songs. But they both sound like beautifully trained singers, and their tenacity proved triumphant: their voices build and twine and come to complex climaxes every time. Overall, the show looks great, with a beautiful storybook set by Dunsi Dai, and costumes to match by Kristie Chiyere Osi.

Duane Martin Foster is fine as The Poet, who's also the con-man father of Sahleem. And, like the two ingenues, he sings with remarkable artistry. But the show's comedy is not in his key. More broadly, the supporting cast is terrific, in spite of the fact that there's almost always a tiny breath or pause between all the dozens of entrances in new scenes. These, collectively, are the source of the many little dead spots that bedevil the action.

The strings were wobbly in the overture in this weekend performance, but otherwise the band played beautifully. Once things get going in each scene or song, Timbuktu! is great. But, on stage, any time the show has to rely on smooth entrances, there's a tiny little pause. It's very odd, because there are three stage managers credited. And yet we somehow end up with the opposite of director Himes' (or any director's) intended result: a smooth-flowing show.

None of these criticisms (of delayed entrances or of phantom limb humor, or those heartbreakingly somnambulant mic cues) apply to the great Drummond Crenshaw as the comical bad guy, the Wazir of Police. His histrionic machinations (especially in Act Two) add a powerful sense of relief to the term "comic relief." Likewise, Evann DeBose is terrific as his wife Marsinah, a deliciously stagey presence. By her side, the delightful Kimmie Kidd is a pleasure to watch, and vastly overqualified to play Marsinah's clever lady-in-waiting, Najua. Keith Tyrone Williams is grand and imposing as the pirate, and tireless in a long list of ensemble roles himself.

Timbuktu! runs through June 9, 2024, at the Edison Theatre, on the campus of Washington University, 6300 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.theblackrep.org

Cast:
The Poet: Duane Martin Foster*
Sahleem-La-Luum: Amarachi Kalu
Marsinah: Evann De-Bose
The Mansa: Dereis Lambert
Wazir of Police: Drummond "Drum" Crenshaw*
Najua/Ensemble: Kimmie Kidd
M'Ballah of the River: Keith Tyrone Williams*
Munshi/Ensemble: Brian McKinley
Chief Policeman/Ensemble: Bradford Rolen*

Ensemble:
Samantha Madison, Byron Jenkins, Venezia Manuel, Alan Phillips, DeAnté Bryant,Herman Louis Gordon, Jr., Haley Rhiney, Gregory Carr II, Emara Neymour Jackson, Brea Johnson, Daija Jones, Tyja Lynnx

Musicians:
Conductor/Piano Bass: Colin Healy
Percussion: Caph P. Guei
Violin 1: Steve Frisbee
Violin 2: Kate Denson
Violin 3/Viola: Chuck Evans
Cello: Marie Brown
Reed 1: Brandon Thompson
Reed 2: Nicholas Alcorn
Trombone: Adam Levin
Drums: Bernard Long

Production Staff:
Director: Ron Himes**
Music Director: Colin Healy
Choreographer: Haley Rhiney
Scenic Designer: Dunsi Dai
Lighting Designer: Sean Savoie
Sound Designer: Justin Schmitz
Costume Designer: Kristie Chiyere Osi
Stage Manager: Tracy Holliway-Wiggins*
Assistant Stage Manager: Christina Yancy*
Assistant Stage Manager: Allie Forte
Technical Director: Christian Kitchens
Technical Director: Roger Speidel
Costume Shop Supervisor: Kristie Chiyere Osi
Costume Crafts: Moustopha Barry
Props Designer: Michail Lynn
Sound Engineer: Jon Zielke

* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association

** Denotes Member, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, Inc.