Tuesday, February 23, 2016


Cheryl L. Davis (Book & Lyrics); Douglas J. Cohen (Music)

The Cast of "Bridges"
In twos and threes, shoulder to shoulder, and all hands clapping, twenty shining faces looking straight ahead come down the center aisle singing, “We’re heading for freedom ... Look how far we’ve come ... There’s nothing we can’t overcome.”  As they head toward two massive bridge towers leaning slightly frontwards to greet them on stage, already some members of the audience are joining in with “That’s right” and “Amen.”  On the left is the Edmund Pettus Bridge of Selma, Alabama; and on the right is our own Golden Gate.  The times on the two sides of the stage are 1965 and 2008, respectively, and the causes are black voting rights and gay marriage rights. 

We will soon learn that there is more than one bridge that will link with strong bonds the two time periods and the icon landmarks together as one.  In this world premiere musical, Bridges, by Cheryl L. Davis (book and lyrics) and Douglas J. Cohen (music), the title says it all.  Finding, building, strengthening, and celebrating bridges between all sorts of gaps – generational, strained relationships, family ghosts, civil rights movements, present with the past, to name just a few – quickly fills the two hours of this compelling, rousing, and heart-filling new musical.  Staging a world premiere production, especially a musical with all its inherent complexities and treacheries, is risky business; but Berkeley Playhouse has crossed that bridge successfully to produce a real winner that appeals to young and old alike with messages of hope, reconciliation, and call-to-action.

Moving slowly on cane in her flowered, floor-length dress, crusty and hobbling Grandma Henderson is more than just a little peeved she must recuperate her recent fall by staying with her son Robert (an African-American minister of a 2008 Bay Area church) and his lily-white, “gotta-do-it-her-way” wife, Denise.  Without knowing it, she shares frustrations akin to those of her teenaged granddaughter, Franki, and also with her younger self, Francine, forty years in the past in Selma.  Together, the three sing defiantly a theme that will help define the entire musical, “This Will I Overcome” (“all the ones telling me what to do”).  Recently discovered letters bring back and fill in gaps of both fond and painful memories Grandma has of 1965 Selma during the days leading up to and following the marches for voting rights.  Those memories will play out and intermingle with her and her family’s 2008 lives as the stories of two times, two causes, two loves, and two families slowly and surprisingly merge eventually into one united set of links.

Amanda King is the strong-voiced, cantankerous Grandma with a strong streak of defiance and a secret that she has held onto for almost a lifetime.  She remembers when as young Francine in Selma, she met a handsome, white, Jewish boy from New York, Bobby Cohen, who had come from the north to help register black voters.  Her memory scenes recall how, while they prepared for the fateful Selma march across the town’s bridge, his persuasive flirting led her to fall in love at a time and a place when even being seen holding hands could have been fatal for both.  Both Francines join in a joyful hymn across the span of their ages, “Walk in the Shade of the Lord,” as each focuses on her time with Bobby. 

Janelle Lasalle and Joshua Marx are the younger Francine and Bobby who sneak into Selma woods to declare in beautiful melody and waltzing steps, “This Is Our Dance.”  Their passions for each other and for the cause they join other brave souls in Selma lead them to the fateful march across a bridge that horses, dogs, and angry white cops do all they can to stop.  In recounting that day with her grandson Eddie (Caleb Meyers) -- who has needed some convincing history is worth studying -- the story becomes so real that they join in spirit and locked arms with Francine, Bobby, and a whole past generation, singing as they proceed, “March with the Aid of the Lord.”  What Grandma does not yet share is what happened that day when all chaos erupted in vicious attacks of batons and the butts of guns on defenseless heads and bodies – including on her beloved Bobby’s -- and the life-long lie that she has since been carrying.

As Grandma reads more letters to engender memories, much is happening in the Henderson household around her.  Pressure is building on Franki (Nandi Drayton) by her Reverend father (the stern and stubborn Nicolas Bearde) to strengthen her college application by joining a new school activity.  As she wanders among hilarious groups of jumping cheerleaders, snobby card players, and aspiring thespians – all demanding in bombastic chords “What Group Are You In?” --  she happens upon a cute girl at the QSA booth (Queer Straight Alliance).  Kylamay Suarez is Jasmine, whose enticing smile, sparkling eyes, and impassioned marketing pitch open all kinds of doors for Franki.  As she becomes a crusader for “No on 8” (the California proposition to outlaw gay marriages), Franki moves closer to a first kiss and to a dreaded conversation with her conservative, yes-on-8” father.  After all, it is he who has led his congregation to “See the Light,” singing on a Sunday in a resounding bass voice, “If they try to build a bridge to cross over, we must block the way.”  

The no vote loses, anger develops (as sung first in despair and then in gathered strength by ’08 crowds in “Freedom, It Ain’t Happening”) and protests ensue.  As Grandma’s memories of the second march from Selma to Montgomery continue to unfold, Frankie and Jasmine join her father’s gay choir director, Paul (Phillip Percy Williams with soaring tenor voice), and others as both generations of marchers sing “Taking a Stand”.  In Selma, voices ring proudly, “We have a right for freedom,” while in California they sing, “We have a freedom to marry.”  When the 2008 protest lands Franki in jail, a plaintive and confessing “Hello Grandma” leads the elder Francine to put the missing pieces into a family bridge long left unconnected; and in doing so, to connect a father and daughter and a father with his past.

Karen Altree Piemme directs a complex set of inter-connected scenes separated in time and place with great dexterity and ingenuity.  She is greatly aided by scene-and-time-informing projections on both bridges (Nick Kumamoto), by Liz Martin’s smart costumes that speak to the story’s two sets of years and cultures, and by the clever lighting and sound design choices of Mark Thomas and Brandon Davis.  Pjay Phillips fills the stage with choreography that showcases appropriately teenage fun, young romance, and fervor of cause.  Music Director David Aaron Brown has ensured voices sing clear and winningly and the band of five plays anthems, hymns, and ballads with full beauty.  The bridges designed by Brian Watson have starring roles throughout, but the set pieces that roll in and out along with two, oft-appearing, raised platforms need some re-work in design not to be so distracting and sometimes unnecessary time-eaters.

In their Bridges, Cheryl Davis and Douglas Cohen have taken the daring move to draw connections and parallels between the black and gay civil rights movements.   How can anyone not leave this Berkeley Playhouse premiere believing that the latter learned much from the former and that both movements have a bond that must remain strong in 2016?  As the full cast of both time periods proclaims, “There’s a bridge, it will hold ... Together we will cross that bridge.”

Rating: 4 E

Bridges continues through March 6, 2016 at Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Playhouse, 2640 College Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets are available at http://berkeleyplayhouse.org or by calling Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. 510-845-8542, x351.

Photo by Ben Krantz.

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