Great Nitty Gritty, at Kennedy-King College. Intended to be performed by teenagers for teenagers, this 1982 musical by jazz musician Oscar Brown is surprisingly sturdy and saccharine free despite its do-gooder antiviolence message. Even better, it stars 38 youths in the Gallery 37 program who represent an explosion of talent. About half the ensemble are accomplished, energetic dancers offering everything from ballet to tap to street dancing; the other half are singers with voices that raise goose bumps. Together they evoke a Chicago where people admire the architecture but despair for their lives.
The loose plot is gravely narrated by veteran actor Ben Sexton (best known as the novelty act “The Mechanical Man”). It has something to do with trying to show a dead gang member (Kareem Manuel) why he should live. But the story doesn’t matter–thank goodness, because there isn’t much to it, and there’s very little dialogue. Much more powerful are Brown’s catchy, moving, honest, unexpectedly funny songs and the voice they’re given by the company. Except at the very end, Brown doesn’t preach. Instead he describes, which helps us understand. The lyrics of one song about an alcoholic (Ja’ Lanta Cobbs, showing off her fine comedic gifts) go: “Doctor says, ‘You’ll be flat on Satan’s welcome mat.’ I say, ‘OK, doctor–I’ll drink to that.'” Great Nitty Gritty may be more a concert of character sketches than a play–but it could be one of the most exhilarating, moving concerts you see this summer.