Unlike “Nightmare Alley: The Musical,” which opened last week, “The Women of Brewster Place: The Musical” was born of universal human needs. Enjoying its West Coast premiere, the show exploded off the Celebration Theatre stage like a Greek tragedy.
It is theater free of the trappings of celebrity, ego and artifice. The concerns that Tim Acito has about society’s relentless crackdown on sexual identity and relationships clearly drive the play, but the environment of Reagan-era social neglect also feels totally natural.
Director Michael Matthews has assembled a brilliant cast and put a sophisticated, balls-of-steel stamp on them. Rough around the edges (and it could benefit from getting rougher still) and perhaps needing to rethink its dramatic infrastructure, “Brewster Place” is burning with theatrical fire, and desire.
The action takes place in the kind of 1970s Chicago tenement-cum-social experiment that has become the stuff of urban legend, putting black people in silos so they couldn’t contaminate the white middle class. It worked out all wrong, of course, instead of creating a sordid mess of broken people and their lies and lives.
Essentially it’s a grand soap opera about eight women, most high class and a few classless, in which two relationships become paramount: between high school friends in their 40s (Kim Yarbrough and Cheridah Best) and between an unforgettable twentysomething couple (Erica Ash and Christine Horn) in the full bloom of love and conflict over how boldly to proclaim their sexual identity. The interaction between each of the couples and with the other characters is electric, charged with energy and warmth and love.
From the opening beat, the way in which song and dialogue become interchangeable pays further tribute to the talent and teamwork that never gives less than 100%. The intimate Celebration space couples to the audience, and Naila Aladdin Sanders’ simple costumes strongly match each character and role.
With its colorful score and sense of dignity, “Brewster Place” is the kind of truly American musical theater that other countries adore and that we all too often relegate to the back door. It doesn’t take a brain to see that this deserves to run at a bigger theater.
Venue: Celebration Theatre, West Hollywood (Through June 6)
Cast: Erica Ash, Cheridah Best, Julanne Chidi Hill, Christine Horn, Kelly M. Jenrette, Charlene Modeste, Lisa Tharps, Kim Yarbrough
Book, music and lyrics: Tim Acito
Based short stories by: Gloria Naylor
Director: Michael Matthews
Scenic designer: Kurt Boetcher
Costume designer: Naila Aladdin Sanders
Lighting designer: Cameron Zett
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
Casting: Jami Rudofsky