Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s current show, Love Sung in the Key of Aretha, opens with actress Teresa Stanley taking the stage and singing the Ashford-Simpson tune You’re All I Need to Get By. For those Sarasotans who’ve traced Stanley’s progression on local stages from her early teen days, it’s thrilling to watch the way she’s now become such a polished and powerful performer, with Broadway credits to her name, and an exciting way to begin the evening.
Stanley started her career working here with WBTT’s artistic director, Nate Jacobs; and in Aretha, Jacobs gives several new young performers a chance to be part of one of the largest ensembles WBTT’s ever assembled. It’s all in aid of a show Jacobs also wrote and directed, one that does not take the path of a biography of soul legend Aretha Franklin, but still injects a lot of her music into a piece centered on four women living in a Florida apartment building, circa 1968.
That year was a pivotal one in many ways, with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war both in full flood. Those events can’t help but touch the lives of Mattie (Stanley), a nightclub owner and singer with a secret from her past; Carolyn (Tsadok Porter), a young woman with a habit of dating the wrong men; Doris (Ariel Blue), who’s reluctant to experience love again after a disastrous marriage; and Doris’ daughter, Sharon (Alyssa White), who’s touchingly in love with young activist Kevin (Mikeyy Mendez).
It’s a pretty basic setup that never really offers any surprises or special insights, and sometimes events and reactions to them happen with a speed that’s unconvincing. But while you might want more from the storyline and characters of Aretha, there certainly is plenty of music, for the most part sung with skill and energy, to keep you listening.
Stanley, of course, is a knockout on several numbers, especially Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready and I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You), delivered with heartfelt fervor. But the other leads get a chance to demonstrate their vocal chops as well. Blue is moving on All the King’s Horses and forceful on Think (a song that’s unfortunately truncated here, as happens with some other numbers you’d like to go on to their full length, too). Porter puts a lot of oomph into Dr. Feelgood and Chain of Fools, and White is impressive on the Act I closer, Bobby Womack’s I’m in Love.
They’re lucky enough to be backed by a band (led by music director James E. Dodge II) that really knows how to put across those classic Franklin tunes. The costumes contrived by Jacobs and Nicole Renae Hamilton bring back the colors and styles of the period and generally look right on the performers.
Mainly, the production showcases those great songs, with a few you may have forgotten. And with the talent performing them, it’s probably reason enough to get out to WBTT while the show runs (through Jan. 16). For tickets, call 366-1505 or go to wbttsrq.org.