Black Ensemble


at Angel Island

Marvin Gaye’s life alone would make a poignant drama: the intensely spiritual son of a loving, supportive mother and a violent, alcoholic, ex-minister father, he used his considerable musical gifts to gain the world but in the process lost his soul–to drugs, paranoia, and obsessive sexual healing–before being shot dead by his father in a petty family dispute. Couple his story with the intense life of his gutsy musical partner Tammi Terrell, and you’ve got a formula for a glorious Hollywood-style show-biz bio: earnest, talented young musicians find themselves through their art, achieve some worldly success, then are tragically cut down by the great divider of friends, Death. At the height of their popularity in the late 60s, Terrell was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Adapting Gaye and Terrell’s bitterswept tale for the stage in All I Need to Get By, Lephate Cunningham Jr. sugarcoats the story. Cunningham alludes only briefly to Gaye’s stormy relationship with his father and makes no reference whatsoever to the darker strains in Gaye’s character, the scars from his childhood: bouts of self-doubt, crippling stage fright, constant womanizing. But to his credit Cunningham does touch, however gingerly, on Terrell’s history of sick relationships with abusive men. The scene in which she comes perilously close to being beaten by Temptations lead singer David Ruffin is among the most harrowing and powerful in the play.

The chipper, crisp, clean direction–Cunningham directed with Jackie Taylor–only shoves the show farther into the realm of pure Hollywood entertainment. The first three-quarters especially has a very light, exceptionally charming, musical-comedy feel. Even Motown founder Berry Gordy, who exploited young black talent, paid minuscule salaries, and swallowed other songwriters’ copyrights, comes off more as a humorously pushy business visionary than as the ultimate capitalist pig. The last quarter of All I Need, in which Terrell slowly dies, is played as straight four-hankie melodrama.

None of this is meant as damning criticism. As Shakespeare knew well, bad history can make great drama. In a show featuring this many energizing Motown hits–among them “My Girl,” “Where Did Our Love Go?” and “Dancing in the Streets”–only a fool, or Stephen Sondheim, would want to bring the audience down with the sad, unvarnished truth. Cunningham and Taylor have opted to entertain, and the result is a two-hour show that just flies by.

Of course it helps that Taylor and Cunningham have assembled a wonderful, adept, flexible cast as comfortable with drama as they are with music. Mark Townsend, who offstage looks no more like Marvin Gaye than I do, is absolutely convincing as the singer, especially when he opens his mouth and notes come out as sweet as any Marvin sang. Likewise Lori Katheryn Holton as Terrell sings with such power and barely contained sexuality that you don’t just hear her sing, you feel it. Even the smaller roles are filled by actors who know their way around a stage. Kelli Rich in particular proves herself an absolute chameleon, equally convincing as Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, and Valerie Simpson.

Jean Raymond, director of A Sid & Nancy X-Mas, has also assembled a wonderful cast, among them Brearly Rauch, Greg Lindsay, and Kevin Scott. Unfortunately, Scott’s belabored original comedy doesn’t give them much to work with. Essentially a short sketch with a bad case of elephantiasis whose premise is that Sid Vicious puts on a Christmas special, A Sid & Nancy X-Mas quickly grows tiresome.

Scott was clearly determined to fill up 90 minutes, and fill it up he does, with scenes that last far too long, running gags that grow less funny with each repetition, and lots and lots of stuff lifted right out of the movie Sid and Nancy. Especially tedious is Scott’s insistence on repeating again and again the dialogue near the end of the movie, when the nearly suicidal Nancy keeps whining in her childish New York voice, “We’re junkies, Sid.”

What makes the weakness of Scott’s play all the more heartbreaking is his amazing, absolutely on-the-mark impersonation of Sid Vicious. Watching Scott out-Oldman Gary Oldman made me wish he’d opted to create a stage version of the movie. Or better yet, saved his Sid for some as-yet-unwritten comedy revue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.