By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
In my everyday life, there are a lot of experiences where I’ll hear a tune on the radio or on TV and know the tune back and forth, upside down, right side up, and sideways, but… I’ll have no idea who the artist is. Thus is the case with Donny Hathaway, for me. Though he’s a big name and had a brilliant career in the R&B genre and wrote a lot of tunes I know, I didn’t really know who he was or his story. Baltimore Center Stage’s newest production, Twisted Melodies, Written and Starring Kelvin Roston, Jr., Directed by Derrick Sanders, with Set Design by Courtney O’Neill changes that and gives me a glimpse into the short life of this prolific singer-songwriter with stories of his past and present and all the angels and demons that came along with it.
As a musician, Donny Hathaway’s style usually falls under the American Jazz, Gospel, R&B, and Soul.He was a singer-songwriter, arranger and pianist, as well, with a career spanning the late 60s until his death in the 1979. In that short time, he wrote, arranged, performed, or collaborated on many hit songs such as “The Ghetto,” “This Christmas,” “Someday We’ll Be Free,” “A Song for You,” “For All We Know,” “Where is the Love,” and “The Closer I Get to You,” the latter two, popular collaborations with Roberta Flack. Hathaway and Flack were honored with a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals in 1973 for “Where is the Love.” All in all, a short, but very successful career. However, plaguing him throughout his life was his bout with Paranoid Schizophrenia and it was reported he did not take his medication regularly to control the symptoms. On January 13, 1979, while working on another project with Roberta Flack, Hathaway’s body was found on the sidewalk under window of his 15th floor room at the luxury hotel, Essex House in New York City and his death was ruled a suicide.
Set up in the Main Stage at Baltimore Center Stage, the Twisted Melodies Set Design by Courtney O’Neill is simple, but elegant, representing an upscale New York City hotel room in the 1970s with some well-placed, appropriate set pieces. The space is not cluttered and allows Royston to navigate the stage without trouble. However, the simple design we see is just the tip of the iceberg. Along with an absolutely superb Projection Design by Mike Tutaj, the set comes alive and is a character all its own. Both Set Design and Projection turn this one-man production into a spectacle, but in a great way. The set seems to morph right before your eyes and you’re left wondering if you’re really seeing what you’re seeing, just as a Paranoid Schizophrenic would (A damn door disappears!!! Or was it there in the first place? Hmm.). The sometimes-frenzied, sometimes-slow room altering projections and amazing Lighting Design by Alan C. Edwards toy with your visual senses and work in tandem with an impeccable Sound Design by Christopher M. LaPorte that affects your auditory senses and has you reeling in a slight confusion and agitation in your own seat and completely immerses you in the action onstage. The work of O’Neill, Tutaj, Edwards, and LaPorte gives the audience the tools to actually what it is like to think and feel like Donny Hathaway. Major kudos goes to this technical team for and extraordinary job.
Derrick Sanders takes on directing duties and under his guidance, this production is 90 minutes of enthralling, engaging theatre. I imagine it’s challenging to direct a one-man show but to direct the author of the piece being performed, as well? I only imagine that challenge expands. However, everything seems to run smoothly and Sanders keeps the action moving. The blocking and character work in collaboration with the technical aspects make for a powerful production of heavy emotion, sight, and sound that all fit perfectly together.
Kelvin Roston, Jr., who wrote Twisted Melodies and performs the role of Donny Hathaway is superb in this role that I can see him playing for years to come, should he so choose. He completely embodies Hathaway and is a stellar musician as well, playing the piano effortlessly as his fingers glided across the keys. Vocally, Roston is a powerhouse and his performance of the familiar songs is worth the ticket price, alone. For as good as his musical performance is, I don’t consider this a musical, but a play with music, instead. And when it comes to character work and acting, Roston is absolutely on point. His storytelling is top notch and his performance is strong, confident, and authentic. He really understands Donny Hathaway and all of his struggles and this knowledge shines through in his performance. Carrying a full production solo is a feat in itself and Roston does it flawlessly, with deep emotion and it makes for an outstanding performance.
Final thought… Twisted Melodies at Baltimore Center Stage is a look into the mind of a genius fighting a mental illness and fighting hard with his art and every fiber of his being. The mix of multi-media and the natural, raw, and multi-talents of Kelvin Roston, Jr. immerse the audience in the story of this musical genius name Donny Hathaway and engages the audience so well, one feels as he or she is in the shoes of this poor man. If you haven’t gotten your tickets to this spectacular production yet… do it now! This is not a production you want to miss this season.
This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s production of Twisted Melodies… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
Twisted Melodies will play through April 16 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For Tickets, call the box office at 410-332-0033 or purchase them online.
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By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy