Cross That River
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
October 13, 2009
Hearing the stirring standout gospel song sung by Soara-Joye Ross is reason enough to see Cross That River, a narrative musical that captures the history of the African American experience out West during the mid-19th century. There are other reasons to see this musical, but Ross�s powerful rendition of "I Must Believe" elucidates, by itself, the pain and loss of someone whose family is torn by slavery in the South, and defines the hope that her young son, Blue, will successfully escape from the plantation, cross the Ohio River, and be free.
Allan Harris, who wrote music and lyrics, incorporates a full spectrum of American music that influenced black history: blues, folk, country, rock, gospel, and jazz. The story begins in 1855, and follows Blue from slavery in Louisiana to freedom in Kansas, where he finds work as a cowboy and cattle herder. Harris, as the adult Blue, narrates, introducing each song and segment with historical background. He comes across as a relaxed and wise storyteller. Beginning with the song "Cross That River," the titular metaphor for freedom, Harris gives us a familiar, but necessary, launch into this educational journey.
The book, by Andrew Carl Wilk, consists of segments that carry Boy Blue, played sympathetically by Brandon Gill, from boyhood into manhood—an intelligent and compassionate thread that holds this song cycle together nicely. As the plantation owner�s daughter, Whitney Bashor is appropriately thoughtless and un-self-conscious about her interaction with her best friend, Young Blue, ultimately giving him good reason to run for his life. There is the stereotypical cruel overseer, Lucius, played by Timothy Warmen. Charles E. Wallace distinguishes himself in three roles: Boy Blue�s father, Big Daddy; Mule Skinner, the coarse man who cared for the animals as they crossed the country; and the deceptive and cruel bachelor seeking a wife, Ben Tuller. Joseph Melendez plays the tough owner of the town, Diamond Jimmy. As the preacher, Tony Perry leads the ensemble in one of the more rousing songs, "Dat Dere Preacher." And, Wendy Lynette Fox portrays the hope and adventure at the outset of her character�s journey, and beautifully illustrates how far her Annie Hutchinson falls. Credit for graceful musical staging on the small stage goes to Donna McKechnie.
Cross That River is presented anecdotally, and offers a breadth of opportunity to explore and educate on a different historical subject on a visceral level: Buffalo Soldiers, the black Army regiments; mail order women; Black Seminoles—all significant parts of American history as well as American Black history. All are entertaining and informative. But only Soara-Joye Ross�s delivery of "I Must Believe" reaches an emotional depth that leaves no doubt about her message. In others, I had questions. For example, I wondered about the dramatic obstacles the newly-freed men faced when trying or wanting to enlist in the Army. What led up to the formation of the Black regiments? As Wilk presents it, we are told of their feats and awards, but we don�t feel their frustration and pride. In the segment on the mail order bride—what made this specific to the African-American woman? In that sense, Harris and Wilk have done a fine job. They grabbed my attention, held my interest, and prodded me to want to know more.
Anne Patterson�s effective production design consists of a simple bare tree off center. Nothing more is needed. Matt Frey designed lighting and Timothy Brannigan created sound. Cross That River: A New Musical About the Black West is directed by Andrew Carl Wilk.