Monthly Archives: September 2022

Gelb and La Fiesta Latin Jazz Quintet Dim the Party Lights on New CD

Review: The Latin Jazz Pandemic Suite – CD

By Perry Tannenbaum

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CD: The Latin Jazz Pandemic Suite – Gregg Gelb, leader, tenor saxophone; Stephen Anderson, piano; Andy Kleindienst, bass; Beverly Botsford, percussion; Ramon Ortiz, drums – 30:10

If you think about the makeup of a Latin jazz quintet, your expectations would likely include a pianist, a drummer, a conguero, an acoustic or electric bassist, and another soloing musician – on marimba or vibes if you’re looking for a tropical flavor, on trumpet if your taste runs to South-of-the-border salsa. The sound is easier to conjure: light, breezy, festive, or celebratory. Always joyous. So it’s almost redundant that tenor saxophonist Gregg Gelb and his group named themselves the La Fiesta Latin Jazz Quintet. By far more surprising for this quintet is their ambitious new project, composed by Gelb, that provides the main core – and the title – for the group’s second album, The Latin Jazz Pandemic Suite. Sunshine and celebration discarded in favor of morose ruminations on COVID-19?

No, that never quite happens in the new six-track collection, five of them forming the Suite. Yet a haze of lassitude, discomfort, or discontent hangs over the entire set – sheer jubilation never fully breaks out, even in the “Tiempo de Fiesta (Party Time)” finale. Millions of us have had many of the same thoughts, agonized in similar isolation, and experienced many of the same fears and frustrations. But however much we have experienced in common during our nearly two years apart, the global pandemic has done little to bring us together – and plenty to increase our divisions. Serving as a preamble to the Suite, Gelb’s first composition for La Fiesta during the pandemic, “Juntos De Nuevos (Together Again),” would likely be merrier and more anthemic if the togetherness were accomplished rather than merely yearned for – and if it extended beyond his quintet, which was “looking forward to when we would be together again and be able to play,” in the composer’s words.

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“Juntos” starts with a lush rain-forest quietude, Stephen Anderson’s piano faintly dripping, Andy Kleindienst’s bass replicating a soft acoustic guitar, and Beverly Botsford’s exotic percussion clucking, ticking and moaning rather than pounding. The pounding arrives when drummer Ramon Ortiz switches away from his cymbals and rims to the heart of his drums, making a nice launchpad for the saxophonist’s brash entrance and the announcement of his virile theme, more like Sonny Rollins’ or John Coltrane’s concept of Latin jazz than Cal Tjader’s. Anderson’s soloing, on the other hand, is suppler, more apt to feature Latin rhythms as well as chords, yet able to layer on some McCoy Tyner gravitas as the pianist builds to peak moments. The rhythm section gets ample space here to show why Gelb missed them, Kleindienst’s airy bass solo leading into a more intense jam between Ortiz and Botsford before the leader returned with the theme. After repeating his melody, Gelb played on it briefly, bringing the track to an abrupt, invigorating halt. A zesty reunion.

None of the five parts of the Suite is nearly as long as “Juntos de Nuevos,” but hardly a beat separates the flow – none at all between parts 2 and 3. With shifting tempos and themes, Gelb’s Pandemic Suite acquires a cumulative heft, only let down in those two fused sections, “New Normal” and “Mucha Positiva,” where the quintet becomes a bit too literal, first the rhythm section and then the leader, in simulating the monotony and repetitiveness of isolation. The outside sections, “Quarantine Dance” and “Tiempo de Fiesta,” both find the right balance between the festive impulses of Latin jazz and the grim reality of COVID confinement. Sunshine dominates, occasionally dimmed. Introduced by a mildly domesticated Mongo Santamaria shuffle, “Quarantine” soars midway through its melody line before falling down and stomping with a jazz riff. All of the solos that follow from Gelb, Anderson, and Kleindiest ultimately tumble into that recurring riff. Unlike his arrangement on “Justos,” Gelb didn’t play on the melody when he returned with it, signing off abruptly after repeating one chorus, stomping his riff one last time with Anderson.

Gelb injects a little more Latin spice into his “Fiesta” riff, with a sax component all his own interspersed with emphatic punctuation from the rhythm section, so the composition sports a bit of hard-bop jauntiness a la Horace Silver, one of the two composers the Quintet covered in their eponymous 2016 debut album. Unadorned by this zippy sax riff, Anderson’s piano solo is energetic and inspired as ever, nicely complementing Gelb’s best blowing on this set. Percussion kicks in twice surrounding Gelb’s final solo, the last a rather chastened jam, pointedly slowed down to underscore that we cannot readily recover our carefree pre-pandemic sunniness just yet.

The penultimate piece in the Pandemic Suite, “The Sad Truth,” the ballad that it sorely needed: as Gelb’s liner notes tell us, “As March 2022, almost one million Americans have died from the virus. We still wait for it to end.” This is the saxophonist at his most soulful, invoking the gruff artistry of Dexter Gordon and Rollins. What I do wish for here is a composition that would have extended more than 16 bars – and solos that lengthened with it. Anderson enters ever so lightly and, abetted by Ortiz’s work, succeeds in making this ballad a Latin Jazz “Truth.” The pianist, in fact, seems to love this composition more than the composer, for he continues to lavish filigree upon it even after Gelb reprises the theme. Botsford asserts herself along with Anderson toward the very end of the arrangement, where the saxophone becomes slower and softer. That makes the sudden onset of the “Fiesta” finale explosive and satisfying.

 

“Mean Girls” Delivers High School Intrigue and Nostalgia

Review: Mean Girls at Blumenthal PAC

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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John Keats, the great poet who never saw his 26th birthday, bid his younger brother George to look at the world as a “vale of soul-making,” a useful rewrite of the “valley of tears” handed down to generations of good Christians through the Latin liturgy. Two centuries later, when our world views were more likely to be molded by Tina Fey, that same epithet was nearly as apt a description of high school. That passageway, a hermetically sealed microcosm of the real world we seeped back into after the last bell rang, was seen to be the place where we were memorably loved, betrayed, scarred, pigeonholed and inspired to find our style, our niche, and our selves.

For the first time, anyway – or forever.

Amid stints as creator of 30 Rock and head writer on Saturday Night Live, a matched set of adult microcosms, Fey demonstrated her mastery of high school reality with her screenplay for Mean Girls in 2004 and, to a lesser extent, in the book she contributed to the musical adaptation of the box office success 14 years later. You’ll be better oriented to the touring version of the Broadway hit, now at Belk Theater, if you cuddle up with the 97-minute original on Netflix.Mean-Girls-1

There you will get a better feel for Evansville, the university town near Chicago where 16-year-old Cady Heron gets her first tastes of high school – and America – after growing up home-schooled in Africa. Markers along the way are clearer on film, where Cady checks in with her folks after days at school, and the progress of the conspiracy to take down queen bee Regina George is itemized and commemorated step-by-step. The musical score was written by Jeff Richmond, Fey’s husband, and clocks in at 66 minutes, supplanting those markers and eating into other key specifics.Mean-Girls-2

A couple of times when I was catching up with the film, where Lindsay Lohan squared off against Rachel McAdams, I found myself exclaiming inwardly, “Oh, that’s how mean she is!” when I saw Regina in action. The most egregious of these omissions from the musical occurred right before McAdams invited Lohan to come and sit with her exalted clique, The Plastics, and have lunch with them for the rest of the week. It’s a cringeworthy humiliation episode in front of the whole cafeteria that gets swallowed up by “Meet the Plastics,” the fourth consecutive lame and overloud song at the top of the show.

Or so it was in the early going on opening night at the Belk, where techs in the soundbooth offered more than a judicious amount of support for the lead singers and ensemble combatting the fortissimo orchestrations by John Clancy. They seemed to get the hang of the hall after intermission, so I was able to decipher more than half of Nell Benjamin’s lyrics. That will be a tremendous godsend at future performances before intermission, when some in the audience might otherwise be struggling to get their bearings.Mean-Girls-8

The show improves when it moves to Cady’s Calculus class, where English Bernhardt gets to sing the calmer, relatively low-key “Stupid With Love” when she’s smitten by the dreamboat sitting in front of her, Adante Carter as Aaron Samuels, Regina’s ex. A nice complex of intrigues begins soon after Janis, Cady’s Goth guide to the treacherous terrain, hatches her three-pronged strategy to dethrone Regina. While Cady sets about infiltrating the Plastics, sowing dissension among Regina’s acolytes, and ruining her perfect bod; Regina learns of Cady’s crush on Aaron and nonchalantly lures him back.

Cady doesn’t blow her cover by showing her anger and jealousy, but she doesn’t give up on Aaron. She begins pretending that she’s dumb rather than brilliant at math, starts taking dives on exams, and reaches out to Aaron to be her tutor – when she should actually be tutoring him. Since Regina’s crimes against her classmates are abridged, we can wonder more readily here in the musical who’s the real meanie than we could in the movie.Mean-Girls-3

These intrigues get to be pretty tasty as the thrust of the songs switches from sketching the horrors of high school to more personal feelings and drama. After Barnhardt bemoans Cady’s Calculus crush, Lindsay Heather Pearce gets to vent her fury at Regina in “Apex Predator,” hoping to destroy Cady’s naïve delusions about the reigning prom queen. It’s apex of this musical’s hard-rock pretensions. Even Eric Huffman as Damian, Janis’s genial gay chum, gets a nice cautionary confessional at the top of Act 2, though “Stop” sounds like he’s shamelessly stealing from Avenue Q or The Book of Mormon.

Reveling in our tragic teen diva, standby Adriana Scalice* subbed on relatively short notice for Nadina Hassan as Regina, growing more admirable in her screaming power ballads as the sound system settled down. You could pretty much get the onslaught of her cattiness late in the opening act as she thrust her predatory claws into Aaron with “Someone Gets Hurt,” but she was far more sensational after the break in her apocalyptic “World Burn.” That’s when Regina discovers that she’s been played.

Hassan disappeared so suddenly from the tour that her name still appears in the top row of both the cast marquee and the photo gallery in the playbill. More amazing at the sold-out opening night performance, a woman sitting close behind me screamed her head off – and nearly mine – each time Scalice appeared! Most amazing was driving home with my wife Sue and two other women: I found myself surrounded by pure nostalgic bliss. High School USA!

*For the Saturday matinee, understudy Olivia Renteria steps in

Joy and Grasso Revivify the Kings and Queens of Bebop at Middle C

Review: Samara Joy and the Pasquale Grasso Trio at Middle C Jazz Club

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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August 27, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Born in the Bronx, Samara Joy didn’t stray far from home to win best vocalist honors in the annual Essentially Ellington high school competition at Lincoln Center. You can get to that Versailles of Jazz overlooking Columbus Circle by taking any of four Bronx subway lines, including the A train. Nor was it much of a drive – if she didn’t simply hop a bus – for Joy to go across the Hudson River to Newark and win the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019 while still a collegian.

Recently, she graduated from the jazz program at the State University of New York at Purchase, less than 35 miles from the Big Apple, where she was an Ella Fitzgerald Scholar. No, Joy hasn’t needed to hit the road to pick up these auspicious accolades. But make no mistake, teamed up with an extraordinary bebop guitarist, Pasquale Grasso, young Joy is going far. The 7:00pm set last Saturday evening was sold out at Middle C Jazz, where Joy and Grasso’s trio made their Charlotte debut, testifying to the already impressive momentum of Joy’s career and the spiraling sophistication of the Queen City’s jazz audience.2022~Samara Joy~12-1

Hard to say where the crowd had caught the buzz. A year ago, both Joy and Grasso were featured in August issues of major magazines, the singer in Downbeat and the guitarist in a JazzTimes write-up. Both have toured recently and both have been listed in their respective “Rising Star” categories for the past two years in Downbeat’s International Critics Polls, the more established Grasso rising to #3 in this year’s rankings. Grasso’s discography is also more extensive, but news of Joy’s triumphs is hitting my inbox more frequently these days. Verve, one of the choicest pearls among jazz recording companies, has signed Joy and will be dropping her first CD (and vinyl) on her new label in mid-September, and she has recently climbed aboard the list of heavyweight headliners for Jazz Cruise 2023. Yes, Grasso will be in the same boat, not quite as high on the quirky marquee.

Although only two tracks from the new album, Linger Awhile, have been released, the full songlist – otherwise greyed out – can already be viewed at Apple Music, and you can hunt down one other new song in a YouTube concert. Maybe even more exciting and auspicious than the half dozen songs she sang from the new release, including the title track, were the five songs that have not appeared on either of her two albums to date, including new lyrics for tunes by Thelonious Monk, Fats Navarro, and a tryout for Joy’s French translation of “April in Paris,” mashed up with the original English by Yip Harburg for composer Vernon Duke.2022~Samara Joy~16-1

Nor was Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” the lone tune Samara performed from her eponymous debut album of 2021, merely a lazy reprise. The YouTube concert recorded last July at Duck Creek, just after the release of Samara Joy, leans far more heavily toward Sarah Vaughan than the studio version, which shuttled between Sassy Sarah and Ella Fitzgerald in its timbre and interpretation. At Middle C, she was bolder, more self-assured, more venturesome, and more individual. Freed by Grasso’s lacy and linear accompaniment to take liberties with the beat, Joy bent the melody – and the lyric – more audaciously, particularly in the final sentence, letting Hoagy’s vain “dream” float longer than those previous versions and ending with a little cadenza that stretched out the final “refrain” to two or three long breaths.

Since Vaughan was the vocal great most closely associated with bebop, it was inevitable that Joy would gravitate toward melodies by Monk and bebop phrases coined by Charlie “Bird” Parker – especially since Grasso, in addition to his latest Be-Bop! album on the Sony label, has also released solo EPs devoted exclusively to Bird, Monk, and the wellspring of his unique guitar style, bebop pianist extraordinaire Bud Powell. Sprays of dazzling lucidity poured from Grasso’s fingers whether he was setting the stage for Joy’s vocals with oblique intros or soloing midway to give our featured artist a well-deserved breather. Not that this future diva ever took a seat or even a sip of water. She’s just 22!2022~Samara Joy~4-1

Jumping right into “Can’t Get Out of This Mood,” a somewhat neglected gem that Vaughan introduced in 1950 on her first LP, Joy’s vocal kinship with Sassy was instantly apparent – but she was getting to the song a few years earlier in her career, so her voice had a lighter, more youthful sound. She sounded like a younger Vaughan from back in the ‘40s, when you could only hear her “Perdido” on 78rpm. That made a difference when Joy sang the payoff line, “Heartbreak, here I come!” almost embracing disaster. After giving her “April in Paris” a French twist, Joy played around a little bit with Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” starting at a ballad tempo with the bridge, which slightly veiled the song’s identity before she hit the familiar opening line with an abrupt uptempo splash.

For me, the most delightful segment of the program came at the midpoint, when Joy concentrated on retrofitting some lost bop treasures with fresh lyrics. “Sweet Pumpkin,” already gathering plays on the streaming sites as the B-side of Joy’s first Verve single, has had two separate lives – as a Ronnell Bright song recorded by Bill Henderson in 1959 and as a Blue Mitchell instrumental in 1960. Joy’s second chorus was so unlike her first that you could accuse her of a second melody in vocalese, a precipice from which Neal Caine’s ensuing bass solo contrasted like a pleasant, peaceful valley. The young singer really did craft new lyrics for the next tune, Navarro’s “Nostalgia,” which will pick up a parenthetical new title, “The Day I Knew,” when the new album releases. Most fun of all for me was the Monk tune that Joy may not have taken to the studio yet, her new setting for “San Francisco Holiday,” nearly renamed “Don’t Worry Now” – I say nearly because one cover of the tune I’ve found has “Worry Later” as its parenthetical title.

Joy sang her song so slowly that it was unrecognizable at first. Aside from Carmen McRae, the only diva I know who has dared to devote a whole album Monk’s marvelously eccentric music, nobody has ever sung such a prickly, astringent song so slowly. It is blaring, repetitive, brassy music that would lose most of its flavor on piano or guitar, cresting with a bridge that echoes the main theme maybe an octave higher – with more discordant harmony. Only when Joy sped up the melody on her second pass did I recognize the Frisco melody and the wan, soused gleefulness of the original 1960 recordings by Monk’s quintet. Prudently, Grasso took a pass on soloing here, ceding that honor to drummer Keith Balla, who fashioned a fine and witty tribute to Monk’s legendary eccentricity, playing three-quarters of his solo quietly with his bare hands and his finale with a pair of sticks held no further than three inches above his drum kit.2022~Samara Joy~17

There was no letdown after this delight. Joy will be building to the climax of the Linger Awhile CD with the title song followed by the pinnacle of Monk’s composing genius, “’Round Midnight” – a fairly objective judgment if our measuring stick is either the number of cover versions the work has drawn by other jazz greats or the number of plays the pianist’s own versions have tallied on Spotify. If Joy’s recording is like the Charlotte performance, you will not be disappointed. The live version had all the trimmings and more, with Joy singing the verse, the vocal, and what seemed to be an even longer version of the familiar out-chorus vamp than even McRae’s, with little melodic variants all Joy’s own. Separating the two vocals, Pasquale played his most soulful solo in the set. Arriving as a signature song for her upcoming album, “Linger Awhile” was capped by a gleeful trading of fours by the instrumental trio, another pleasant and cordial valley after another majestic peak.

For the Middle C audience, the most delight was probably delivered with Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me.” Not only did Joy wail it with two pairs of soaring choruses, she challenged the crowd to repeat a series of scatted riffs, breaking the room into two competing teams, and choosing sides. Just a bunch of fun, underscoring how relaxed and self-confident Joy had been throughout her sellout set. The encore was a nicely chosen mellowing agent from the forthcoming album, “Guess Who I Saw Today,” a special bouquet for Nancy Wilson fans. There seemed to be many of them in the house.

Toni Stone’s Path to Glory Goes Beyond Winning and Losing

Review: Three Bone Theatre’ Toni Stone at The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Trivia questions: who replaced Hank Aaron when the future home run king moved up from the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League to the majors? And who was the first woman to sign a professional baseball contract and play with a men’s team? The answer to both questions is Toni Stone, nee Marcenia Lyle Stone (1921-1996) – unless you’re a stickler for fact-checking and historical accuracy.

Then we need to face the truth that Hammerin’ Hank was already playing for the Braves’ farm club, the Eau Claire Bears, a season before Stone made her Negro League debut at second base with the Clowns. And before team owner Syd Pollock signed her to a Clowns contract, Stone had played in professional men’s leagues – if not the topmost major league – for 16 or 17 years, depending on which capsule biography you read.

Hearing all this for perhaps the first time, you’ll probably ask a truly important question, one that playwright Lydia R. Diamond surely asked after reading Martha Ackmann’s 2010 biography, Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League. Why haven’t we all heard about Toni Stone before, and why isn’t she more celebrated?

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Amazingly enough, when Diamond’s Toni Stone premiered Off-Broadway in June 2019, the playwright didn’t blare out the answers that would become so glaringly obvious to everyone the following summer in the midst of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and our communal COVID hibernation. Diamond’s portrait of the pioneer nicknamed Tomboy during her childhood in St. Paul is more nuanced, diffuse, and detailed than it might be if she had begun sketching it after the cataclysms, polarization, and pandemic chaos of 2020. Or the nationwide schism of January 6.

Lucky us? In some ways, Three Bone Theatre’s production at The Arts Factory, meticulously directed by Dr. Corlis Hayes, reminds us how relatively dispassionate we were less than three years ago when we looked at neglected pathfinders and feminist icons. There’s a certain amount of useful calibration when Diamond seemingly steps aside and lets Toni tell us her story – and what she thinks of herself.

In her third standout outing of the year, Nasha Shandri immerses herself engagingly in all of Toni’s quirks, vulnerabilities, and strengths; candid rather than arrogant, sassy rather than seductive. Above all else, Toni loves baseball – the ball, the glove, the game. Both Diamond and Shandri make us believe it.

When she runs out of things to say, to us or her teammates, Toni will recite major league player stats, as if she’s collected and memorized every baseball card out there – as if the numbers have magic healing powers when she’s distressed. Diamond makes her so obsessed with baseball that romance and sexuality make her uncomfortable. Shandri has a mumbling recitation of stats at her disposal, or a Peter Pan aversion to being touched, whenever hormones begin flowing around her. She’s a natural, either way she goes.

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An all-Black ensemble of eight men hustles around Jennifer O’Kelly’s appropriately seedy set, which packages a movable tavern, a ramshackle players’ dugout, and a dimly lit brothel, leaving most of the Arts Factory playing space free to fancifully, maybe laughably, serve as a baseball diamond. Eight men aren’t going to be enough to bring us all the mentors, parents, teammates, and romantic interests of multiple races and genders that Toni will deal with from her childhood through her baseball career (1936-1954). Props and costumes are stowed in the dugout as well as offstage to keep things flowing.

Cutting through much of the confusion, Diamond keeps the names, personalities, and fielding positions of Toni’s teammates as constant as the parks she plays in. All evening long, Shandri and her team wear the same Clowns uniforms, authentically rendered by costume designer Kara Harman. That way, Toni’s path comes across as less solitary while she moves from her early ballplaying days in a local church league to a series of American Legion and minor league teams in Minnesota, San Francisco, and New Orleans before her major-league apotheosis: a full year with the Indy Clowns in 1953, before she joined the famed Kansas City Monarchs for her final season.

Diamond and Hayes are both aware of the perils of allowing Toni and the shorthand differentiation of her crew to devolve into a wholesome replay of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The playwright not only gives us frequent glimpses of the racism that dogs Toni’s progress, she also shows us the sexism and piggishness behind the scenes in the clubhouse, occasionally checked but never eradicated.

We also see that there are good reasons for the men’s resentments when Stone signs on with the Clowns. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and Larry Doby integrated the American League during the following season, the Negro Leagues began to crumble. By the time Aaron is signing with the Braves in 1952, the talent drain is on the verge of killing Negro League baseball, reducing its remaining teams to barnstorming roadshows.

Clowns owner Syd Pollock – nearly overacted here by James Lee Walker II – didn’t sign Stone to make his team better. Unlike previous owners, who signed Toni on her merit, Pollock signed her as a novelty to improve the marketability and entertainment value of the team, already baseball’s equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters. In a notable confrontation between Shandri and Walker, Diamond shows us that Pollock isn’t interested in showcasing his new acquisition on a level playing field. To ensure his investment – not very much, if we’re talking about Toni’s salary – Pollock colludes with other owners to ease up on her in the middle innings, when their pitchers will throw her more hittable pitches.

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Hayes does her part, casting the other Clowns, so that Shandri doesn’t stick out uncomfortably as the smallest on the team. In particular, the other middle infielder is diminutive, in the vein of Phil Rizzuto, Jose Altuve, or Joe Morgan. On the other hand, Miles Thompson as Spec, the team intellectual, is not at all the dwarf that he was reputed to be. Along with Justin Jordan as Woody, the embittered teammate who is by far the most trouble for Toni, Thompson is quite an imposing figure.

More than one of the Clowns points up Toni’s sexual inexperience in their dugout and locker room banter. One whole scene, a rather bawdy little prank played on her with a baseball bat, more than emphasizes her naivete. It also heightens uncertainty among the men about Toni’s sexual orientation.

Clearly, Diamond wants to keep us guessing, too. The juiciest roles outside the clubhouse go to Robert Rankin as Millie, the madam of that brothel, and Keith Logan as Captain Aurelious Alberga, an elderly admirer who persistently pursues her at Jack’s Tavern, a San Francisco joint. Skittishly resisting Alberga’s initial advances, Shandri seems more attracted to Millie, whose sexual appeal is aimed at her teammates. Both Rankin and Logan give charismatic performances, worldly and mature, charismatic and confident.

Doubling as Drunk Willie when he dons his Clown uniform, Walker as Pollock is probably the best at marking those moments when white men enter the story. Hayes could have sharpened the portraiture a bit more when we meet the other white folk: Father Charles Keefe, the neighborhood parish priest who paves the way for Toni to play organized ball; and Gabby Street, nicely handled by Thompson, the former manager of the world champion St. Louis Cardinals, who yields to Toni’s repeated entreaties, making it possible for her to aim higher.

Melissa McDaniel Grisham’s choreography seems a bit toothless and pointless when the Clowns team goes into their pre-game shtick. From reviews I’ve read on the Off-Broadway production, the aim there was not just to show how athletic and entertaining the players were but also to show the degradation and of being clowns as well as ballplayers. There’s not even a hint of cringeworthiness here at The Arts Factory that critics had perceived in New York.

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Yet the chemistry among the players has exactly the tang we want when they’re playing the game they love – under shabby, hateful conditions. Johnathan McKnight as the catcher Stretch exudes the authority of the team’s quarterback, and Devin Clark has the aloof dignity of Elzie, the Clowns’ pitching ace. Tito Holder energetically grins and pouts as Jimmy, the team dumbass, and Frank FaCheaux makes the most of the glimpse Diamond gives us of team comedian King Tut, whom Pollock dubbed “The Clown Prince of Negro Baseball.”

Toni Stone has a hazy mythic aura to it unlike most biographical baseball sagas. Intense nail-biting games down to the last pitch or the cumulative drama of a torrid pennant race are nowhere to be found. They are as irretrievable as the barnstorming Clowns’ won-lost records, batting averages, ERAs, and boxscores. What binds the roaming Clowns together like family, in spite of their frustrations and resentments, is the love they share with Toni – for the game.