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Sarah Sings a Love Story

I can't believe I'm talking to the one and only Sarah Vaughan — Russell

What do you need? A little Black Coffee? — Sarah
sarah sings
Tamar Ashley Davis (photo credit: Scott Mendenko)
The incomparable jazz singer Sarah Vaughan (1924 - 1990) was nicknamed " Sassy" and "The Divine One." She had a glorious voice and left a legacy of recordings with a unique singing style that made an indelible impression on the music scene of her time; one that continues to inspire the singers of today.

Evidently Vaughan during her heyday made a huge impression on the playwright Stephanie Berry's brother and sister-in-law whose married life together serves as the core of her play with music at the Crossroads Theatre. Berry conjures up Vaughan in the guise of a superb singer (Tamar Ashley Davis) to stir up memories in Elaine Torbry (Marva Hicks) as she sits in a melancholy mood staring into her vanity mirror.

Serving as a muse to both Elaine and her husband Russell (Curtiss Cook) over their thirty year-marriage, Vaughan exists in the play as an illusory participant in their lives. It is the vision of Vaughan singing at one of her last gigs in a nightclub. The device serves as a window to the past for the aging Elaine.

Russell was the real jazz aficionado who introduces the classical musical enthusiast Elaine to to his cherished musical genre. In the play, Vaughan's life becomes aggressively integrated in the story that spans the years of their marriage and four children. The time-line is rather vague with numerous and somewhat awkwardly devised flashbacks and forwards, but they range from the hey-day of jazz in the 1940s through the Civil Rights Era and Vaughan's appearance at the White House. This last takes place at the top of Act II and includes the play's most interesting, but short-lived stor yline in which one of the children becomes a social activist.

At its best, this loosely structured play provides a platform for some terrific singing by Ms. Davis who nails the Vaughan style even as she asserts her character's sassy nature. The play's ensuing conflicts remain somewhat elusive and jumbled and have little dramatic impact. However, the frequent jumps between Vaughan's life, career and multiple marriages as well as the comparative stability of Elaine and Russell's relationship as they become devoted fans offer openings for some fine singing.

Among the tunes that audiences will enjoy are such classics as "Lullaby of Birdland," " Tenderly, " " Time After Time, " " Fly Me to the Moon, " " Body and Soul, " and " In My Solitude." Ms Hick's Elaine sings beautifully and occasionally becomes a collaborating second voice to Vaughan in the play's most imaginative segments. She also does a cool rendition of "Cherokee"

Cook's mellow voice is impressive. But it is his standout performance of a noticeably unfulfilled man totally consumed by his love for jazz that gives him a heads up as the play's most interesting character. In the play's most memorable scene, Russell finally meets Sarah face to face and a cue that leads them into song and a jazzy jitterbug.

In addition to the play being generally unwieldy, poorly structured, and in need of some judicious pruning, it is also confusingly staged by director Jeffery V. Thompson. However, it offers a surprising number of effective musical moments mainly thanks to Ms. Davis's dynamic singing.

The costume designs by Taracheia Fleming are stand-out while the two level setting designed by Chris Cumberbatch isn't. That leads me to conclude: the singing of the songs is standout but the wobbly play they inhabit isn't.

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Sarah Sings a Love Story By Stephanie Berry
Directed by Jeffery V. Thompson

Cast: Curtiss Cook (Russell Torbry), Tamar Ashley Davis (Sarah Vaughan), Marva Hicks (Elaine Torbry)
Scenic Design: Chris Cumberbatch
Lighting Design: Melody A. Beal
Costume Design: Taracheia Fleming
Projection Design: Bill Toles
Sound Design: Michael c. Wimberly
Choreography: Dyane Harvey
Musical Direction: Nat Adderley, Jr.
Production Stage Manager: Bayo
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
Crossroads Theatre Company, 7 Livingston Ave. New Brunswick, N.J.
From 03/09/17 Opened 03/11/17 Ends 03/25/17
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/11/17
NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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