Three years ago, Baltimore Center Stage drew crowds to the world premiere of a musical about reggae star Bob Marley. This spring, the company hopes to do the same with the world premiere of another work full of vintage songs — “Soul: The Stax Musical.”
Opening May 10, this show shines a light on the Memphis-based Stax record label, which launched in 1961 and had such hits as Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” Isaac Hayes’ Theme from “Shaft,” and, of course, from Rufus Thomas, the inimitable “Do the Funky Chicken.”
A connective thread between “Marley” and “Soul” is Kwame Kwei-Armah.
He was Center Stage artistic director at the time he wrote and directed “Marley.” After seven seasons here, he headed back to his native London early this year to become artistic director of the enterprising Young Vic theater. He has returned to direct “Soul,” a project he initiated during the final phase of his Center Stage tenure.
It started when Kwei-Armah went to Memphis to observe a workshop that was developing a musical using the extensive Stax catalog. He came away thinking the piece “had tremendous potential” and decided to get it on the Center Stage calendar.
“If you say ‘Motown,’ you immediately think Diana Ross and the Supremes,” Kwei-Armah says. “But people don’t always associate Stax with the artists. Stax was the underdog to Motown, as Baltimore is the underdog to Washington. I felt the audiences here would respond to this show.”
There will be a lot of opportunities for that response. “Soul,” with a cast of 21, contains nearly three dozen songs, squeezing in classics by the likes of the Staple Singers, Booker T & the MGs, and Wilson Pickett. But there is a plot, too.
“Matthew Benjamin has done a great job writing the book,” Kwei-Armah says, “creating a story that gets beyond the jukebox musical.”
Benjamin, currently working on a project about the life of Motown star Smokey Robinson, had no hesitation about getting involved in the Stax musical.
An Otis Redding song “was the first music I heard that made me feel something,” Benjamin says.
To capture the emotional connection many others have with records released on the Stax label, Benjamin explored the company’s history.
“It’s a lost story in the canon of American music,” he says. “What makes Stax so interesting is that it was an integrated company in the segregated South. I didn’t dive deep into all the social and political stuff, but it’s there. I’ve been trying to find the right balance of telling their stories as honestly as we can, and still have an exciting show. There were a lot of drafts.”
Stax had its financial ups and downs, but held on through the upheavals of the 1960s and into the soulful ’70s, the decades chiefly spotlighted in “Soul.” All the while, the label issued songs that got into the public consciousness and remained there.
“I had to find out what songs to use and where to place them,” Benjamin says. “You need songs corresponding to the low points in the lives of the people at Stax. There are also songs you just have to include, even if they’re not connected to anything. The music is so emotional and gets under your skin. The biggest challenge was having to eliminate songs.”
Once the musical selections were set, choreographer Chase Brock could swing into action.
“This is my 26th new musical, but I have not done a jukebox musical before,” says Brock, whose credits include choreographic work for “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway. “I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about Stax. It has been such a joy discovering. I was lost in hours and hours of YouTube. And there’s fantastic footage on a DVD of Stax artists on tour in Norway in 1967.”
Brock, who worked on a production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” that Kwei-Armah directed at New York’s Public Theater a few years ago, sought to put a distinctive choreographic stamp on “Soul.” Cast members occasionally had a hand — or foot — in the process.
“I would see someone do some moves during a rehearsal break,” Brock says, “and I’d go, ‘I know you were kidding, but we’re using that.’ I have to make sure that the artists are telling the right story physically. All the artists who are part of our story have a specific movement language.”
For Baltimore native Boise Holmes, who portrays Isaac Hayes in “Soul,” a specific sound is needed, too.
“I’m rocking the bald head and beard,” the Los Angeles-based Holmes says. “I just have to bring the voice down.”
The actor, who has written an autobiographical play titled “Baltimore Son” (“I helped my dad deliver The Baltimore Sun in Sandtown,” he says), played Hayes in the early workshop version of “Soul.”
“I used to listen to his music all the time,” the actor says. “I’ve watched a lot of Isaac Hayes interviews. He had a hard life. He talked about being an outcast in school, when he wasn’t the Mr. Cool we think of. These are the things I keep in the back of my head to catch the spirit of who he was.”
Kwei-Armah has been trying to catch the spirit of all the Stax artists represented in the show, and the spirit of their remarkable recordings.
“The music is front and center in this show,” Kwei-Armah says. “And the music is bloody brilliant. I challenge anybody not to be moved.”
Does the director expect theater patrons to end up dancing along?
“Hell, yeah,” Kwei-Armah says. “If there aren’t at least two people in the aisle doing the Funky Chicken, I’ll give back — well, OK, I won’t go so far as to give back my fee, but I will be disappointed.”
For the now former Center Stage artistic director, “Soul” seems to hit an extra appealing note.
“To be able to dance my way out of Center Stage, with a sense of joy, a sense of funk,” Kwei-Armah says, “that feels to me like a beautiful swan song.”
If you go
"Soul," in previews through May 9, opens May 10 and runs through June 10 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $25 to $79. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.