Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Composer Donny Hathaway became the second kind. And the gripping play about his final night on Earth, Twisted Melodies, presented by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at the Center of Contemporary Arts, plunges us into the horror of his schizophrenia, as Hathaway tries to get his pop music career back on track. The 90-minute one-man drama rises to eye-popping greatness under the direction of Reggie D. White.
This clear but complex show (from 2015) was written by its star, Kelvin Roston, Jr., who has played the role of the pop icon in Chicago, New York, Baltimore, and here before this latest staging. Hathaway attended Vashon High School in St. Louis before going to Howard University. (St. Louisans always want to know where you went to high school.) And Twisted Melodies features some of Hathaway's most loved songs. But the mood before the show was not promising.
"Mauve," I sighed, as I sat down in my seat, to behold a wide hotel room set, depicting part of the Essex House in New York City in 1979, as designed by Tim Mackabee. But from this seemingly banal milieu, it will turn into a startling hell. A cavalcade of subtle (and later shocking) high-tech visual projections pushes us into Hathaway's mind, through a sensory instability imposed against us. The nightmarish tricks, which jarringly distort the very playing space itself, were designed by Mike Tutaj and enhanced by the unsettling sound design of G Clausen. It's perfect for Halloween, in a show that runs through October 22.
There are frequent glimpses of happier times and bright promising moments aplenty in the composer's early life. Roston warmly leads us through Hathaway's childhood in the Carr Square housing projects in St. Louis as a musical prodigy under the guidance of his firm but loving grandmother, a professional gospel singer. He meets the love of his life in college, but that falls apart. And indeed, his music career has been stalled for five years when first we meet him, for reasons that will become painfully obvious.
But it's a musical, I swear. And Mr. Roston is beautifully engrossing on the keyboard. The songs, including his duets with the voice of Roberta Flack, are touching and (for me) unforgettable. The show has its harrowing, hopeless moments. And yet it explores the stunning polarities of art and madness in a way that's immediate and riveting–and genuinely heartwrenching.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's Twisted Melodies runs through October 22, 2023, at Center of Contemporary Arts, Catherine B. Berges Theatre, 6880 Washington Ave., St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.repstl.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association