The Spirit of Rhythm

The Extraordinaires swing back through time

Those doo-wop maestroes The Extraordinaires took time out from their usual gig schedule to perform The Spirit Of Rhythm at The Union Chapel in Islington on Thursday 10 April 2003. This show took the audience through the history of vocal styling from the 1920s to the 60s.

The setting of a real church, the venue gave the evening a spiritual, ethereal feel. The five-piece combo backing the three singers made the most of the natural reverb, producing a crystal clear sound.

The show opened with Gabriel Fofie and Mark and Roy Hall dressed in check shirts and dungarees, climbing over a straw bale and launching into Java Jive. This was followed by Jeepers Creepers and Ol' Man River, as they recreated the sound of The Mills Brothers.

From the early days of vocal harmony, The Exs moved seamlessly on to the Cotton Club era, with Crazy Rhythm, Stomp Stomp and Shorty. Things livened up with Boogie Woogie On A Saturday Night, I'm Gonna Run Her Down and Rockin' At Grandma's

The songs were punctuated by a rather stilted narrative that would have served better as programme notes. It also didn't help that the narrator didn't seem to have read the script, and stumbled over a few of the words.

The band was led by Oliver Wilby on sax and clarinet, who helped himself to some meaty solos during the evening. Sometime Solid Sender Andy Kuc played a handsome guitar, with Steve Ashworth (piano), Mez Clough (drums) and Moe Kabir on double bass providing the rhythms.

As the years flew by, so did the costumes, with the more familiar DJs being donned by the singers as they belted out Gloria, Sh'boom and the stage favourite 60 Minute Man. This innuendo-ridden classic went down a storm, with sections of the audiences rising from their pews to give it some serious swaying.

Along with the songs, there's also the trademark Berry Brothers-style routines, with jumps, spins and splits. Unfortunately someone had decided to put three large monitors in the middle at the front of the stage, so many people couldn't see the fancy footwork.

Enjoyable though the songs were, the evening didn't really work as a show. There was little integration between the narrative and the performances, and the usually ebullient Extraordinaires were strangely subdued, and not communicating with the audience like they can and do at a normal gig.

There was no faulting the songs though, and Earth Angel, Charlie Brown and finally Do You Wanna Jump, Children brought the night to a close.

Described as " a music and dance odyssey through the roots of Black American Vocal Music", the evening needs work to come over as a fully integrated show. The narrative needs sharpening up - and a little humour wouldn't go amiss. After all, this is supposed to be entertainment, albeit with an educational angle. The Extraordinaires themselves remain as good as ever.

In London for a short run in April at The Young Vic, the Langston Hughes' play Simply Heavenly has proved to be a huge hit with audiences. An enthusiastic all-black cast sung and danced their way through two hours of joyous music and sharp dialogue from the days of the Harlem Renaissance.

Hughes was born on February 1 1902 and travelled widely to Africa and Europe before returning to Harlem in 1924. He loved the jazz and blues clubs of Harlem, and inspired him to write plays and poetry that have justly survived the passage of time.

The story is a simple one: Jesse B Semple, played by Rhashan Stone, is trying to save enough money to marry Joyce Lane (Cat Simmons). Unfortunately he just can’t seem to manage it, what with the easy temptations of drinking at the local bar and the sultry Zarita (Nicola Hughes) ready to lead him astray.

In the bar, the locals solve the problems of the world. Melon (the magnificently-voiced Clive Rowe) is trying to win over Miss Mamie (Ruby Turner), while Gitfiddle (Dale Superville) just wants to get paid for playing his guitar, a task becoming harder as jukeboxes arrive.

Although none of the songs are well-known, the delivery makes them all winners. Ruby Turner in particular stops the show with her blues number, and then gets together with Madam Butler (Melanie Marshall) and Mrs Caddy (Angela Wynter) to sing the virtues of those Good Old Gals.

The set design by Rob Howell is simplicity itself: a bar, and behind it, a stage which doubles as a street and the bedrooms of Jesse and Joyce. The live music under the direction of Kelvin Thomson (playing Joseph the pianist) is an integral part of the play, with Carlton Headley as Miles contributing saxophone, and the guitar of Dale Superville.

Under the direction of Josette Bushell-Mingo, the cast produces a bravura performance throughout the play. There's an excellent mix of humour, pathos and political comment that is relevant 70 years on.

Then of course, there's the dancing. Top of the shop is Jason Pennycooke's solo as John Jaspar. This was a tour-de-force of acrobatics and soft-shoe shuffle that demanded an encore.

So how does it turn out? Does the guy get the gal? Have a guess. But as with the best stories, it's not the destination but the journey that makes it so enjoyable.

This is a vibrant show that exuded warmth and joy. The short run was extended soon after it opened, and it could easily transfer to a bigger theatre. With the past successes of shows like Five Guys Named Moe and Smokey Joe's Café, there's no reason why this one couldn't follow in their footsteps.

© Andrew Winton 2003

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