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October 2, 2009

A Boy and His Soul

by Jesse North

Editor’s note: In the spirit all the exciting changes that are occurring with this blog, it is my pleasure to present Stage Rush’s first guest blogger, Kym Formisano.

When Jesse asked me to be the very first guest blogger for Stage Rush, I cannot deny the wave of complete and utter fear that washed over me. I certainly questioned his sanity briefly; after all, handing Stage Rush over to little old me is akin to entrusting a homeless man on the subway with your firstborn. Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration. But there was a huge amount of trepidation and anxiety on my part, especially when I discovered I would also be covering the first off-Broadway play to be discussed on the blog. Gulp.

As it turns out, I had little need to be so concerned. Actually, what began as a nerve-wracking trip to the always-beautiful Union Square turned into not only one of the easiest and most efficient rushes I’ve done, but also a powerful and vivid theatrical experience matched only by the energy and undying vigor of the show’s star.

Colman Domingo, one of the players in the gone-too-soon masterpiece Passing Strange and its recent film adaptation by Spike Lee, stars in the one-man show he authored, A Boy and His Soul, at the Vineyard Theatre. The Vineyard, previous home to shows like [title of show] and Avenue Q, is an unassuming brick structure with a quaint sensibility (before a certain time, one must be buzzed into the lobby) and an interior that brings to mind a combination of a small-town theater company and a modern art gallery. Because of the erratic nature of some off-Broadway theaters and their rush policies (I’m looking at you, Atlantic Theater Company), I decided to check with the receptionist well before show time to make sure I had the correct rush policy information. After being buzzed in by a super-pleasant voice, I entered the lobby and was immediately greeted by an enthusiastic and helpful box office attendant. The rush policy here is fairly standard: show up two hours prior to curtain with cash in hand and receive up to two tickets at $20 each. It is also a general rush, so don’t worry if you’ve lost your student ID. I left with a sense of confidence, ready to return at 5 p.m. and purchase my tickets.

While it would be impossible to define a “perfect” rush, I would venture to say my experience at the Vineyard very nearly qualifies as such. I was able to immediately purchase two tickets to that night’s performance without waiting in line for so much as a second. Again, the box office attendant was cheery and efficient, and the whole experience lasted no more than a minute or two. Not only was the price right, but $20 will nab you a front-row ticket. No complaints here.

The Vineyard can lay claim to one of the most intimate and interactive stages in New York. Although shockingly small in comparison to some other off-Broadway theaters, the amount of space offered is a perfect fit for Colman Domingo’s show. A Boy and His Soul is an autobiographical account of the actor’s life, focusing on the influence that soul music has had in some of his most crucial moments. Although it is a one-man show, Domingo fills his rich and musical life with loveable, frustrating, and hilarious characters, including several family members and a few notable guest stars. Just as he stole the show in Passing Strange, Domingo often hijacks his own spotlight; just when you think he cannot get any funnier or more poignant, he does. The only instance when he does not remain completely in focus is a moment when he asks the audience to sing along in a joyous rendition of “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” by Gladys Knight & the Pips. If Domingo hasn’t won you over by now, you might as well give in and enjoy the music, because it’s quite possibly the only thing that can overshadow the playwright.

Rachel Hauck’s set, which appears to be supported by several hundred soul LP’s, adds just the right touch of nostalgia, complete with a record player, a couple of old-fashioned toys, and a wooden staircase. The play begins and ends in the basement of Domingo’s childhood home in West Philadelphia, and while the story may wander, the set keeps you grounded in what is really important. Marcus Doshi’s lighting design is brilliant in the most minimalist fashion; he doesn’t hit you over the head with each revelation, but rather dims or brightens the stage only to highlight the emotions the audience is meant to feel with each new anecdote. This is not a play that would benefit from a creative team that strives to exploit its star, as Domingo is dynamic enough that one could gain just as much from watching him act on a bare stage.

Perhaps my only qualm with this production has to do with its beginning, before we have been allowed to get to know each of the characters and become acquainted with the story. While Domingo is a joy to watch, with his elastic movements and smooth, soulful voice, the show could benefit from a stronger introduction and a quicker hook. The introduction of the family comes at us slowly, and I felt the show didn’t find its legs until the young Colman attends his first Earth, Wind & Fire concert, from which point the actor hits his stride and does not allow for a dull moment.

There are many laughs to be had, mostly at the expense of Domingo’s wannabe gangster brother, his cartoonish sister, and his gruff but entirely lovable stepfather. A later scene, where Domingo tells his brother a huge and highly sensitive secret outside of a strip club, is one of the most unexpected and well-acted comedic moments. The play also has just as many sad and eminently relatable tragic interludes. Domingo’s mother and stepfather passed away around the time he was cast in Passing Strange, and anyone with half a heart cannot help but shed a tear when he occasionally looks up to the theater’s ceiling, eyes agleam, and winks. This is the exact charm of A Boy and His Soul; it is both a heartbreakingly true work of one man’s life and the music he loves, and an engaging and entertaining pseudo-musical that should continue to thrive in exactly the kind of theater it currently resides in, where it can be appreciated and lauded for everything it is.

Kym Formisano

Play: A- / Rush: A

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