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Cover Story

Reviving beats of music, life

[Photo: LiveArts Peninsula Foundation]
With Caleb (Phillip Howze), left, looking on, Althea Dunbar (Monica Raymund) is flattered by the promoter, Prather Fairchild (John Borges).

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 20, 2003

The Manhattan Casino, a nightclub where musical greats performed and the onetime hub of St. Petersburg's black community, is the force that drives a new song-filled show.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Inspiration can strike in unexpected places. Take the genesis of the first song written for a new musical about a legendary St. Petersburg nightclub.

Bob Devin Jones got the idea while hiking through a bog in Scotland.

"While I was hiking, somewhere in the bog, this song came to me, You Welcomed Me Home," said Jones, who was at Scotland's highest mountain, Ben Nevis. Thus was born a key song in Manhattan Casino, the musical that premieres tonight at St. Petersburg's Coliseum. Performed by Gloria Bailey, who plays an African-American family's Nana, or grandmother, it is a touching ballad around the dinner table that anchors the first act.

For an interactive graphic of the Manhattan Casino and audio of the musicians who played at the club, go to Jon Wilson’s special report, “The Deuces.”
[Times photo: Bob Moreland 1957]

Jones, who wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics of the musical, which he also directed, said in the script that You Welcomed Me Home is an "ancestral song. . . . It is a song that will acknowledge the journey of several generations . . . their 'makin' a way outta no way,' their faith and their individual and collective tenacity."

Manhattan Casino is the second musical by LiveArts Peninsula Foundation, which scored a hit several years ago with its first show, Webb's City, about a flamboyant entrepreneur and his groundbreaking discount department store in St. Petersburg. After that success, the foundation was established to celebrate Tampa Bay area cultural history in theatrical productions. It was eager to take on a project focusing on the black community.
Caleb Jefferson, played by Phillip Howze, is a World War II vet and trumpet player at the casino.

"When the idea of this musical was first brought up, everybody on our board pretty much said, 'This seems like the right thing to do,' " said Bill Leavengood, the playwright who wrote and directed Webb's City and is the foundation's artistic director.

"Segregation was so pronounced in this area, even when I was growing up (St. Petersburg native Leavengood is 42), that what happened in the black neighborhood might as well have been on Mars. What the Caucasian population knew about black people was what they knew of them as service people. Nothing of their family lives, nothing of their social and leisure lives, nothing of their business."

The Manhattan Casino is a beguiling subject for a musical. For about 40 years, it was a pillar of St. Petersburg's black community, which was restricted to neighborhoods south of Central Avenue.

Located on the second floor of a building in the bustling business district along 22nd Street S, it presented a dazzling lineup of jazz, blues and gospel artists that included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Mahalia Jackson, Louis Jordan and Little Richard. The club closed in 1968.

Jones, an African-American actor, director and writer who moved to St. Petersburg about five years ago, was offered the job of writing the musical when he was directing From the Mississippi Delta at American Stage in 2001. From the beginning, he aspired to more than just a musical revue.

"To think that not only Louis Armstrong but also Duke Ellington was right there and that those boards are the same boards that they trod upon, well, you get a vibration from that," he said.

"But along with this extraordinary music, there's the added thing that the casino had a variety of purposes for the Sightless Christians Association, the Masons and a group similar to the Elks. Wakes were held in there, sometimes church services, graduations. This was the nexus, the fulcrum that the community revolved around."
Monica Raymund, as Althea Dunbar, a teenager who dreams of being a singer and sneaks into the Manhattan Casino. Her parents disapprove.

Set in 1948, Jones' story is a variation on Romeo and Juliet, with 16-year-old Althea Dunbar (Monica Raymund) being wooed by the play's one white character, a young promoter and jazz enthusiast named Prather Fairchild (John Borges). Althea and her girlfriends sneak into the Manhattan Casino to dance, hear the music and even perform. Her parents disapprove.

Subplots involve Althea's extended family, the colorful characters populating the club and whether Ellington's orchestra will show up for a scheduled date at the casino or be booked by his promoter into a white venue (coincidentally, the Coliseum).

"Bob has always wanted it to focus on the local African-American community," Leavengood said. "Musicals are usually about pace, about getting to the next song. This is a differently paced musical. I think it is trying to be its very own thing. This is about the lives of black people and doesn't simply offer up a revue of old standards."

Jones doesn't shy from the reality of segregation in St. Petersburg, though he has strived to keep it in balance with an essentially optimistic, uplifting story.

"This is a dramatic musical. We'll give you some shimmy and some jitterbug, but there's a little bit of heavy lifting, too," he said. For example, the show includes a reference to the lynching of a black man that took place at Central Avenue and Ninth Street (now Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street) around 1918.
Sharon Scott, left, and Gloria Bailey play women whose strength of character nurtured the black community in St. Petersburg.

With Jones signed on to write the book, LiveArts still had to find someone to do the music. After composers in New York and Chicago considered the project but declined, Leavengood turned to Danny Hamilton, who composed the score for The Rock and the Rabbi, a Christian-themed musical loaded with catchy songs that premiered at Ruth Eckerd Hall and had an off-Broadway engagement. But Hamilton didn't work out.

By this time, Jones had enlisted Michele Lamar Richards, an actor friend from his hometown, Los Angeles, to be co-lyricist. After Hamilton's exit (he's still credited as co-composer), Richards became the composer, even though she is not a trained musician.

"I'm a novice," she said. "The reason I ended up writing the music is because I couldn't write the lyrics without hearing the sound. I didn't know what I was doing, so I couldn't get scared."

Jones believed that as an African-American, Richards understood what kind of music the show demanded, and he was prepared to accommodate her limitations.

"Michele would get up and explain what the song should be and sing it," he said. "I'd heard her sing several of the songs, and I thought that if someone can just record what she's doing, we could proceed. Her music is so wedded to the story that it's seamless. It's almost like an opera."

So, in an unorthodox working process, Richards would come up with the tunes, acting and singing them for the show's musical director and arranger, Rick Steuart.

"All I had to do was sing out to him the music in my head, and he'd come up with the notes. He's been my right hand," she said.

Richards has had success as a film actor. Her most high-profile role was in 1992's The Bodyguard, in which she played Whitney Houston's sister. Now she is Althea's mother in Manhattan Casino. She is one of two cast members performing under an Actors Equity contract (Sharon Scott, playing a blues-singing laundress, is the other).

"They've always wanted me to be in the cast," Richards said. "I think they just wanted an old pro onstage in case people got lost because it's very much a mix of community and professionals."

With a cast of more than 30, all black except for Borges, and the all-black seven-piece Manhattan Casino band, this is one of the largest locally produced African-American stage works performed in the bay area. Performers range from students such as Raymund, who is in the theater program at Shorecrest Preparatory School, where Leavengood teaches, to experienced actors Scott, Bailey and Nathan Burton, who plays a numbers runner.

Henry Lawrence, a onetime pro football star with the Oakland Raiders who has gone into acting, plays an imposing character named Rat, who manages the casino.

Last week, Jones was patiently presiding over weeknight rehearsals in donated space on the corporate campus of Tech Data in Clearwater. Many of the actors came to rehearse after spending the day at jobs or in school.

"The challenge is that we're doing this musical without a workshop, without a preview," he said. "We're having to accomplish most of our work four hours a night during the week, a few hours longer Saturday and Sunday. So we have to hit it hard."

Leavengood was at rehearsal, as the dramaturge, looking for places where the play might be tightened or clarified. He also was fretting over the myriad things that needed to be done to install the production at the Coliseum, where part of the audience will be seated nightclub-style at tables, with bar service and snacks.

Manhattan Casino is budgeted at $250,000, more than it could gross with the Coliseum's seating capacity of 700. Sponsorships are supposed to make up the difference.

"If we sold out all 10 shows, we would bring in about $150,000 at the box office," Leavengood said, taking into account the complimentary tickets that go to sponsors of the production. "For a show this size to make any money, we'd have to run for a year, and that ain't going to happen in St. Pete. You'll just never get enough audience in this area to pay for a production of this size."

The Coliseum was seen as the best venue for blacks and whites.

"We wanted a place where both communities would feel comfortable, and the Coliseum was one of those places," Leavengood said. "There are numerous black events that are held there and numerous white events held there."

For Webb's City, the audience was overwhelmingly white. Leavengood is counting on whites and blacks attending the new show.

"It will be an uphill battle," he said. "The preconception among theater people around here is that the white audience in Tampa Bay doesn't go to see black shows, and the black audience doesn't really support theater much. I've been sort of challenging the whole community to get over that idea."

And that might be the whole point of Manhattan Casino. Asked how he would measure the show's success, Jones said:

"It would be successful, in my view, if we could bring the community of St. Petersburg together."

Theater preview

Manhattan Casino opens tonight and runs through March 2 at the Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Shows are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Tickets: $15, $25, $35. Call Ticketmaster at (813) 287-8844 or the Coliseum box office at (727) 892-5202.

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