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Artsmash
Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
Entertainment Arts Artsmash

ArtsCentric celebrates African-American female vocal artists in 'Sincerely, Me'

A couple of times during "Sincerely, Me," an ambitious production presented by ArtsCentric, the audience is asked to imagine how poorer our world would be without the legacy of African American women who raised their voices in song.

For the bulk of the show's two-and-a-half hours or so, the all-female cast offers a high-octane reminder of that legacy. About 40 covers of songs originally performed by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, the Shirelles, and the Supremes are packed into this work, all delivered with intense commitment and energy.

"Sincerely, Me" -- the subtitle is "Our Lives, Our Songs, Our Stories" -- doesn't boast the most clear-cut structure.

The lopsided hybrid is mostly a musical revue, more of an evening-length concert, really. But it also wants to be a theater piece, and there isn’t quite enough of a cohesive narrative or compelling dialogue to carry that off fully.

There’s also an over-extended skit that involves a participant drawn from the audience. (If you're a male on the shy side, you might want to keep your head down when cast members start looking for a volunteer.)

The production wouldn't be the worse for a little trimming and tweaking. And I wish room could have been found to honor Bessie Smith (there is surely more than one lady in this cast who could sing the blues), Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, to name a few great artists who go unmentioned.

But reservations are easily swept aside, given the infectious spirit that propels almost every second of "Sincerely, Me."

Briskly directed by Kevin S. McAllister, the show has enough in the way of costumes (Sierra Evans), lighting (Lynn Joslin) and projections (Stacie Munoz) to transcend the utilitarian space where performances are held on the campus of Garrison Forest School.

(The theater on campus where ArtsCentric’s compelling version of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” was held last summer is under renovation.)

The six women propelling this venture are well-matched in talent and temperament. They have a breezy rapport with each other, and they carry out dance steps and vintage backup-singer gestures with aplomb (choreography by Shalyce Hemby).

Above all, they sing up a storm. And I do mean storm. We're talking Fortissimo City. More opportunities for dynamic contrast, perhaps a few ballads allowed to remain on simmer, would have been weclome. Still, as I said, it's hard to complain.

Highlights include nods to girl groups from back in the day, including the Dixie Cups, the Exciters, the Chantels and Honey Cone (a terrific "Want Ads"). The Supremes get short-changed, although bubbly cast member Ashley Johnson still has fun with some Diana Ross shtick.

An impassioned gospel segment salutes such notables as the Clark Sisters and Yolanda Adams. The evening also makes room for samples of Tina Turner, the Pointer Sisters, En Vogue, Toni Braxton, Natalie Cole and a whole lot more. There's a tribute to the mighty Mahalia Jackson, as well as Phyllis Hyman and Whitney Houston, who died much too young.

A segment dealing with Jim Crow-era lynchings and attacks on civil rights marchers provides reminders of the incomparable Billie Holiday with "Strange Fruit," vividly sung by Shayla Lowe; Odetta, with a stirring "Oh Freedom" delivered by Brittney Wright; and Nina Simone, whose "Mississippi Goddam" gets a tense, explosive workout by Kelli Blackwell.

Johnson joins those three artists for a potent version of Simone's "Four Women," which sums up centuries of injustice and stereotyping.   

The mega-watt Blackwell, who lit up the stage in Everyman Theatre's "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark" in the spring, does the same here. But everyone in the dynamic ensemble -- Andrea Albert and Crystal Freeman are the other principals -- contributes equally, with solid backing from a stylish band led by Cedric D. Lyles. (Too bad the sound system tends to muddle the voices.)

All in all, "Sincerely, Me" provides a welcome, soulful summertime jolt.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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