Just when you thought you couldn't possibly get excited about another jukebox musical, couldn't endure another two acts of golden — or not so golden — oldies woven into a vague sort of narrative, darned if Baltimore Center Stage doesn't come along and give the tired genre a fresh jolt.
"Soul: The Stax Musical," receiving its world premiere in a brisk and buoyant production guided by former Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, recounts the life of an ambitious Memphis-based record label, while delivering a nostalgia fest fueled by 30-some infectious songs.
For all of its formulas and limitations, the jukebox format has certainly been known to generate the occasional durable entertainment — witness "Jersey Boys," for example. Part of that show's theatrical legs can be traced to the pull from the ups-and-downs tale it spins of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, along with the contradictory perspectives of the characters narrating that tale.
One of the strengths in "Soul" is that it also tells an eventful story full of peaks and valleys, difficult decisions and sudden turns, and a story that also involves competing perspectives. This keeps a bit of tension going underneath the music, and that counts for a lot.
Stax was all the more remarkable for being an integrated enterprise in Jim Crow-era Memphis. Founded in 1957 by white banker Jim Stewart (Robert Lenzi) with financial and emotional help from his sister Estelle Axton (Mary Jo Mecca), the label became a magnet for black artists creating a distinctive brand of soul music.
While Motown Records in Detroit enjoyed a bigger portion of the spotlight and a generally smoother financial operation (it's more or less effectively chronicled in "Motown the Musical"), Stax had a more fitful development and came up against some pretty tough walls. Naivete and good old corporate shiftiness took quite a toll along the way.
In concise fashion and with an admirably low percentage of cliched sentiments, Matthew Benjamin's book gets across the atmosphere, tensions and personalities behind the evolution of Stax, often with only a couple of deft lines in between musical numbers. The writer's knack for pithy one-liners pays off well, too.
The first act finale could use some tweaking. While "Try a Little Tenderness" makes a suitable lead-in to intermission, the context leading up to it doesn't have enough weight. And the second act compresses the time line a little too hard.
But those are minor matters. What counts is that you never lose track of where you are in this history of the people behind the ambitious company or preserved on its platters — and you never get tired of them, either.
David Gallo's evocative scenery and projections help terrifically with keeping the focus clear as the piece moves through the 1960s into the '70s and beyond (Dede Ayite's expert costumes let you know the date, too).
Kwei-Armah's inspired direction exerts a kinetic energy that never flags, all the while tapping into the distinctive gifts of a cast packed with engaging talents.
This isn't a show just about imitations, although we get some cool ones, especially from Boise Holmes as deep-voiced, be-chained Isaac Hayes. There are genuine portrayals here that have their own traits, nuances and, thanks to Chase Brock's inspired choreography, their own moves, too.
Lenzi and Warner Miller, as the black DJ who brings different goals and approaches when he joins Stax, play off of each other vibrantly. They make it plain how both men could be right and wrong in equal measure, yet always share the same basic faith.
Estelle, caught in the middle, becomes a fascinating character in Mecca's beautifully layered portrayal (it's a kick, too, when the actress gets her chance to let loose vocally). Anastacia McCleskey likewise reveals a great deal of subtlety and charm as rock-solid, cool-headed staffer Deanie Parker.
Another standout performance comes from Allison Semmes, who did stellar work as Diana Ross in the national tour of "Motown the Musical" that played the Hippodrome a couple years ago. Here she uses her bright tone and supple phrasing as Carla Thomas (her "Gee Whiz" is a high point) and Jean ("Mr. Big Stuff") Knight.
Note, too, the vitality and sensitivity of David LaMarr as Booker T. Jones, the bright vocal flourishes from Jon Harrison Taylor's Wilson Pickett. Judging by opening night, Ricky Fante's singing could use more steadiness and power, but his Otis Redding still registers.
Providing vigorous supporting work are Skye Scott and the extra-droll Scott Stangland as stalwart members of the Stax house band.
Nearly walking off with the show — make that strutting and swirling and clucking off with it — is Harrison White as Rufus ("Walking the Dog," "Do the Funky Chicken") Thomas. His acting is full of flavor and bite; his big Act 2 number, starting in the balcony, can't help but bring down the house.
There's a tight, dynamic orchestra tucked behind the scenery, under the authoritative direction of Rahn Coleman.
It's a fool's game predicting a show's future, but this one strikes me as a product that could break out of Baltimore and succeed in New York. It sure is better focused, more interesting and more fun than some jukebox musicals that have played there.
Whatever happens next, this premiere production, a memorable swan song for Kwei-Armah, is bound to be a hit at Center Stage for a tuneful, soulful month.
If you go
"Soul" 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.