Critic's PickOn opening night of Thunder Knocking on the Door, the Cincinnati Playhouse’s producing artistic director, Ed Stern, earned a standing ovation before the show started. It’s the final mainstage production of his 20th and final season. He’s been a remarkable impresario, presenting diverse and entertaining theater with great success, and this revival of Keith Glover’s Blues musical is a perfect example of why he deserved the applause. First staged in 1999, Thunder is the Mt. Adams theater’s best selling musical during Stern’s tenure.
The show tells a mythical tale of dueling Blues guitarists; it’s stuffed with emotionally conceived songs by renowned singer and composer Keb’ Mo’ working with Anderson Edwards. Its first Playhouse production won Cincinnati Entertainment Awards as the year’s best local premiere and best musical, and if there were still a local awards program, it would certainly be a contender for the outstanding production of 2011-2012. In many ways, this feels like a better, more mature rendition of the show.
Glover has returned to direct his sassy, jocular script, as he did 13 years ago, and several of his creative team are back, too, including Tony Award-winning scenic designer David Gallo and “illusion designer” Jim Steinmeyer. They’ve worked with costume designer Paul Tazewell and lighting designer Thomas C. Hase, both past Tony nominees, and veteran sound designer David B. Smith to assemble a spectacular physical production: A sweeping spiral of road and a sky full of lightning. When Marvell Thunder (David St. Louis) stalks in for his second act “cuttin’ contest” with dueling guitars, he’s preceded by thunderclaps, and his steps evoke synchronized crashes and flashes of light. Steinmeyer’s magic affords numerous “how’d they do that?” moments.
But there’s equal magic from Glover’s remarkable cast. They are a coherent ensemble of excellent solo performers: St. Louis is an imposing physical and vocal presence as the sinuous, blue-eyed, supernatural guitarist Thunder, and Trent Armand Kendall plays both the flashy late Jaguar Dupree Sr. and his mundane but earnest twin brother Dregster. Timothy Ware blends James Brown, Little Richard and Eddie Murphy to portray the ambitious but immature Jaguar Dupree Jr. Jennie Harney is his shy sister Glory who bursts out of the darkness of blindness to duel with Thunder, and Terry Burrell (who was in the 1999 cast) is their strongly opinionated, oft-widowed mother. Each one has the vocal talent to lead a production; together they fuel a musical powerhouse.
Thunder poses questions about love, inheritance and creativity, doing so with genuine musicality and innovative theatricality. It was a hit in 1999, and it seems destined to knock on that door again in 2012.
THUNDER KNOCKING ON THE DOOR, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through May 20. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.