Cross That River @ TBG Theater, New York

cast list
Whitney Bashor, Wendy Lynette Fox, Brandon Gill, Joseph Melendez, Tony Perry, Soara-Joye Ross, Charles Wallace, Timothy Warmen

directed by
Andrew Carl Wilk
Cross That River, a new musical at the New York Musical Theater Festival, still needs significant work to live up to its potential. As presented, Cross That River is reminiscent of theme park show; a narrator tells a story, occasionally interrupted by a cast that comes on only to sing about something the narrator just said. It doesnt work as theater, since there is so much of a story to be told. What does work is the show’s score, which includes some memorable songs, beautifully sung.

The show tells the story of Blue, a slave who escapes just before the Civil War, and his time as a cowboy in Texas after he escapes combat. The younger Blue is played by Brandon Gill, and his stage presence overcomes the shortcomings early in the show. But the longer the show goes on, the more you want to see the story, not just hear it.
Allan Harris does a great job in the role of the older Blue, the narrator of the piece. He is calm and understated; the fact that he pops in and out of scenes, discussing what happens between songs distracts, but that is the choice of the playwrights and director make. Mr. Harris does the best with what he is given.

The women, particularly Wendy Lynette Fox and Soara-Joye Ross, are giving some extremely moving songs, perhaps too big for the space. Both women sing soaringly, with heart and emotion. But it is disconcerting to hear narratives of rape, prostitution, beatings, and the selling of slaves immediately before hearing songs sung by the victims. Without seeing any of this action (one doesn’t really want to see it), the emotional impact is lessened. And so the songs, strong as they are, dont really stand on their own.

There is a lot of fire power behind the scenes in this show. The director and author of the book, Andrew Carl Wilk is a four time Emmy-winner and veteran TV producer. Music and lyrics are by Allan Harris, a well-respected jazz vocalist. The musical staging is by Donna Mckehnie. But this talented group tries to do too much, spanning too long a time and cramming too much into this show. It would benefit from some tightening and lightening of the mood. The negative actions chronicled – slave sales, slave beatings, rape, spousal abuse, and prostitution – run together in a litany of sad facts. They are presented so often and so remotely that the audience grows immune to the emotions these actions should bring.

There is a good musical theater piece hiding in this musical revue, but it still needs a lot of work to be discovered.

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