Review: Musical by and starring Renn Woods debuts at Pittsburgh Playwrights

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"SOLD: Renn Woods in Concert (A Play in Rhythm and Blues)" is a mouthful of a title and a lot to squeeze into 90 minutes. The musical started life as a one-woman show and the shift to ensemble piece remains a raw but engaging work in progress.

The musical tour moves helter-skelter from seeming spontaneity to scenes and musical numbers that may or may not be from the life of actress-singer-writer and the show's star, Renn Woods. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company has transformed its intimate space into a cozy cabaret atmosphere, allowing Ms. Woods to work the room on occasion.

In fits and starts, we watch a youngster named Bernadette grow from victim to survivor. As a child actress, she is sexually abused and exploited by a manager embittered, Ms. Woods says more than once, because he lost the TV role of Tarzan. During her star turn in the tour of "The Wiz," a concerned conductor learns of her plight and frees her from the manager's grip. But her personal life continues to be defined by destructive relationships (she has a weakness for drummers, she reveals) and the sudden deaths of loved ones.

Along the way, we get glimpses of brief encounters with the rich and famous, for example, "The Jefferson's" Sherman Hemsley (Les Howard in one of several roles) sends her off to a salon where she can "walk in nappy, walk out happy." We learn that she met and admires Bobby Kennedy -- whom she addresses in song as "Mr. President" -- but that's as far as it goes.

Dressed in circa-1960s outfits, Ms. Woods seems to have stepped right out of "Laugh-In," both in costume and sassy attitude. Her vocal range is strong and the melodies easy on the ears, but it was often difficult to catch the lyrics. Sound was a problem, particularly for Sandy Dowe (as Renn's mother), whose silky voice was often reduced to a whisper. Some of the songs -- all penned by Ms. Woods -- could become cabaret standards for the singer, who noted after one line from "Ease on Down the Road" that using copyrighted music can be expensive.

A shadow screen aided and hindered the storytelling. It worked best to depict the harrowing rape scene with young Bernadette, played compellingly by Aliya Sims, and her manager (Leslie "Ezra" Smith in multiple roles), and later, as Ms. Woods' voice soared in defiant song, MJ Henderson's graceful form was seen in a lovely juxtaposition of vocals and movement.

If there's fact in the fiction, it's hard to tell. The "SOLD" of the title may refer to Ms. Woods' role as sold-into-slavery Fanta in the miniseries "Roots," but there's no mention of it here. There is a confusing scene on the set of "Hair" that reflects tonal shifts that with more time in development with co-directors Mark Clayton Southers and Monteze Freeland might become more cohesive.

Music was provided by a talented quartet including drummer George Heid III, Mike Borowski (guitar), Nick DeCeasare (keys) and Tony Campbell (woodwinds) for fine accompaniment to this hybrid cabaret-concert-musical.

"Sold: Renn Woods In Concert (A Play in Rhythm and Blues)" continues at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, 937 Liberty Ave., third floor, at 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $25 ($20 65+ and students); pghplaywrights.com or 412-687-4686.

theaterreviews

First Published October 8, 2013 11:09 AM


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