BY SANDY STAGGS
I FEEL GREAT!
When DeBryant Johnson struts out to the middle of the Ambassador Bridge, strikes his best James Brown pose and declares with a wallop, “I Feel Good!”, Centre Stage’s audience knows it’s in for a fantasia whirlwind tour of some of the greatest hits out of the Motor City..
With a Detroit backdrop marked by a silhouette of the Motor City skyline and street murals, the vibe was right. The live band was on fire – I’m still diggin’ the jammin’ brass section – and everyone knew every Motown song. Patrons danced in the aisles, on stage, and even got an another round of beers during the show instead of waiting for “halftime.”
And it doesn’t hurt to have eight attractive (can we still say that?), young performers at the top of their game brandishing the flavors of Hitsville, USA from soul to rock and girl pop – I correctly guessed both featured Diana Ross and the Supremes songs on our way to Greenville – and blues to R&B and funk.
Created and Directed by Jessica Eckenrod Cherry & Michael Cherry, Upstate’s newlywed power couple with sublime music direction by Jessica and stunning choreography by Michael, this year’s crop of runway talents includes stalwarts and familiar faces: Jessica (who conceived the production design), Anna-Elyse Lewis, Taylor Marlatt, Wesley Hudson (this season’s Centre Stage cover boy), Joshua Thomason, and music show newcomers Maddie Tisdel, Cassie Francis, and DeBryant.
In fact, it’s difficult to imagine the incredible songstress and quadruple threat Jessica not in Centre Stage’s annual rite-of-passage sparkling music show with live musicians, a true occasion, as most musicals here employ music tracks due to limited space.
Over and over in my notes I see, “Kick-ass choreography! Kick-ass choreography!” This show is powered by rocket fuel and this ensemble is tightly-synced, fully committed, and clearly enjoying performing. And even the solemn ballads are fine-tuned down to every muscle movement.
The song list digs deep into the Berry Gordy catalog with all of the required players and some bonafide treasures.
The boy groups of the 1960s are well-represented with The Spinners (funk-grooves of “Rubberband Man” with DeBryant sporting a fedora); The Temptations (“I Can’t Get Next to You”); and The Four Tops (“Reach Out I’ll Be There”).
While the girl groups featured The Marvelettes: Anna-Elyse (a former “Marvelous Wonderette, herself) leading the uptempo “Mr Postman” with lush backup harmonies by the other gals; and Diana Ross and The Supremes: “Stop in the Name of Love” and disco gay anthem “I’m Coming Out.”
And there are plenty of pop divas in the mix including a trio of Gladys Knight and the Pips tunes: Cassie on “I Heard It through the Grapevine;”
Taylor and Anna-Elyse duet of “If I were your Woman;” and my personal favorite of the evening, Anna-Elise and her three Pips in “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
And resident ginger Maddie (a major new talent on the scene who has already cut her teeth in “The Rocky Horror Show” at The Warehouse and as company member in Scrappy Shakespeare in Spartanburg) reigned (as did her pouty lips) with the gals in some serious Aretha-worthy belting in “I Say A Little Prayer.” This is not the Dionne version.
No Motown salute would be proper without a Jackson medley. This production includes three full Jackson 5 classics: Cassie fronting “I Want You Back” with all those famous Jackson 5 leg moves; Jessica’s hoppin’ Rockin’ Robin; and an incredible duet countering Wesley’s falsetto with Taylor’s alto range in “I’ll Be There.”
DeBryant and Wesley both embody child prodigy Stevie Wonder in “Living for the City” and “If You Really Love Me.”
But the dashing Josh (now in his third or fourth CS rock show) wins the sexy swooner award for Barrett Strong’s “(Money) That’s What I Want” with three of the ladies fawning all over him, and the R&B seduction mood-setting classic by Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get it On.” Josh’s convincing sexy swagger lets you know, he means business.
Some other highlights: “Just the Two of Us” with Anna-Elyse , Josh at the keyboard and a delightful sax solo by Bruce Caldwell; Jessica and the women in a kickline and the brass section (who also double in percussion) in “Rock Steady;” and DeBryant and the fellas in a rousing “Shes A Bad Mama Jama;” and Taylor on lead vocals in a spirited rendition of “Car Wash” replete with polishing rags for the cast.
Act two springs forth into the 1970s funk and disco era with the ladies in jumpsuits and new longer wigs and new spiffy tuxes for the lads.
Trumpeter Greg Day is band leader, with Tad Day on trumpet, Wesley Day on trombone, Kevin Heuer on drums, Mckelvie Wilder on keyboards, and Tim Lee (guitar).
Hair & makeup is by Victor DeLeon, sound design by Matthew Polowczuck, and Val Saporito stage manages I Feel Good.
I Feel Good has been extended through Saturday, February 22. Shows run Thursday through Sunday and all seats are reserved. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (864) 233-6733 on Tuesdays – Fridays from 2-6 p.m. in person at the Centre Stage Box Office, or online at www.centrestage.org. Handling fees will be applied to all purchases.