Live review | Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Black Roots of Vaudeville
, tracing the Great Migration by way of its music, is filled with rousing performances. But as a theatrical whole—and the is loudly proclaiming this its first foray into theater—it's a bit lacking in the storytelling department. This collaboration between Grammy-winning string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, MacArthur "genius" ragtime pianist Reginald Robinson and tap dancer Reggio "The Hoofer" McLaughlin, along with a handful of other musicians and director Andrea J. Dymond, takes the form of its namesake; two dozen or so songs spanning Reconstruction through the Jazz Age make up the bulk of the show, interspersed with a few comedy bits.
Some of this material can be uncomfortable, particularly in an extended minstrel-show section. But the performers don't shy away from presenting this history as it was. The music is given the utmost care, with Robinson showing off astonishing skill on the keys. The Chocolate Drops' Dom Flemons serves as music director, providing lush, period-appropriate arrangements of traditional songs; as a performer, he exudes a kind of geeky showmanship. His bandmate Rhiannon Giddens shines in her bright vocals and furious fiddling. Other musicians, including percussionist Sule Greg Wilson and bluesy vocalist Katherine Davis, make the most of their spotlight moments. The tuxedoed Lalenja Harrington serves as MC, bringing a slam poet's sensibility to her evocative historical narration. (Harrington and Wilson are credited as the show's writers.)
A half-hearted attempt at a fictional narrative involving Giddens as a Country Girl pursued to the city by McLaughlin as her Country Boy, though, feels inorganically attached. Played out in mime like a silent film (young performer Justin Harrington periodically appears sporting title cards), this story gets lost amidst the competing narrative offered by Harrington and the music itself.