KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 21, 1999
So you’re standing out there in Balboa Park, and the thunder starts to roll.
Even though you know you’re about to go into the theater, you still shudder and look for rain. “Thunder is Knocking on the Door,” and every time it does, with bone-rattling intensity, accompanied by blinding flashes of light, you just about jump outta your skin. The effect is fantastic, and so is the show. Fantastic in both senses of the word: fantasy and fabulous.
Thunder is the name of a mythical character in a magical love story, a fable about love in an older couple, love in a young blind girl, love of music and love of life. But it’s the blues that drives the story, and keeps you tappin’, clappin’ and beggin’ for more.
The central character is Marvell Thunder, a seductive shapeshifter, a supernatural, blues-guitar player (derived from the Tricksters of African folklore). He appears in Bessemer, Alabama, in the fall of 1966, at the home of Good Sister Dupree, her boyfriend/brother-in-law Dregster and her twins, Glory and Jaguar Jr. The conjurer Thunder has appeared to challenge the progeny of the only man who could ever out-lick him on the Delta blues guitar. The showdown he seeks is a cutting contest (a blues competition and rite of passage).
MUSIC: “That Ain’t Right (The Cutting Contest)”
At stake are the two magical guitars bequeathed to his children by Jaguar, Sr.; the wounded pride of Jaguar Jr.; the mortality of Marvell Thunder; the vision and heart of Glory Dupree; and, of course, the perpetuation of the blues.
Playwright/director Keith Glover has created a fanciful world steeped in music and myth. These people don’t walk; they slide, they glide, they boogie and bop. And they don’t speak as much as warble and sing. “This House is Built on rhythm and blues,” goes the first number, and they ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie. In lyrical, musical language, and rhythmic, dancing moves, Glover runs his sensational cast through their characters’ life changes. Everything happens “where the two roads meet.” Contests are won, choices are made. One decides to marry, move on or give a life over to the blues.
The music, by Keb’ Mo’ (aka Kevin Moore, recent winner of Blues Artist and Blues Album of the year) presents an expansive range of blues numbers and a smattering of rock ‘n’ roll for attitude.
MUSIC: “Big Money”
As Jaguar, Jr., Kevyn Morrow does a fabulous Little Richard turn in “Big Money” – but he won’t sell out for long. He’ll soon come back to the family fold, and take up the bluesman mantle of his father – after Glory and Thunder get their licks in. The loving couple also gets one of the sweetest duets: “See Through Me.” And when Glory re-emerges from her lovelorn solitary life, she certainly comes back with a bang (in “I’m Back,” a smart, sexy, bump it and belt it show-stopper).
In 1996, when the play was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Glover scored the piece with blues standards. But he made a magnificent move when he turned to Keb’ Mo’ for original music. The story, in some ways, parallels both men’s lives. Glover was born in Bessemer, Alabama, and Keb’ Mo’ dabbled in jazz and other musical forms before he committed himself to the blues. Since they got together, “Thunder…” has kept evolving. There are several new numbers in the latest version, and the current plan is for a late fall opening in New York.
I hope it takes the City by storm. This is a Glorious production. The set is simple, an electric blue floor-spiral that swirls up into winding ramps. The lighting and sound are superbly supernatural, and there are a few knockout special effects. The band is simultaneously cool and hot, and the cast is terrific, both vocally and physically. Kevyn Morrow has rubber legs and a versatile voice; the big-but-agile Doug Eskew does delectable double duty as the late Jaguar Sr. and his twin Dregster; Terry Burrell is a powerhouse as the teasin’, pleasin’ Good Sister; Marva Hicks, as Glory, couldn’t be prettier or spicier; and Peter Jay Fernandez has all the intensity and dynamism of his namesake, Thunder.
So, listen up. When Thunder is Knocking on the Door, you best be lettin’ it all hang out and lettin’ the blues roll in.
MUSIC: “I’m Back”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.