The Rep puts on a safe production.

Boarding House Rules 

The Rep puts on a safe production.

By the time August Wilson completes his decade-by-decade play cycle about the African-American experience throughout the twentieth century, he will surely be beatified as the most prolific if not the greatest black playwright in America. He has yet to tackle the period between 1900 and 1910 or the decade that ended in 2000, but Kansas City audiences can see his take on 1910 through 1920 in the Missouri Repertory Theatre's well-intentioned if conventional production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

Seth (Al White) and Bertha Holly (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) run a Pittsburgh boarding house where, as Bertha says of the itinerant residents, "they come and go." Living there for $2 a week as the play opens are Bynum Walker (Adolphus Ward), who carries around a satchel of herbs and potions, and Jeremy Furlow (Ed Blunt), a handsome 25-year-old who rightfully fancies himself a ladies man. Wilson keeps introducing characters without necessarily adding mystery or intrigue -- until the arrival of Herold Loomis (John Earl Jelks) and his young daughter, Zonia (played on alternate nights by Chera Hishaw and Breanna Ransburg).

Loomis is a brooding man (whose dark costume by Jennifer Myers Ecton makes that perhaps too obvious; the actor only has to recite his lines while the clothes do the rest), and he's on a mission. His wife, Martha (Natasha Charles), has been gone for more than a decade. Rutherford Selig (Larry Paulson), the decent white man in the lives of the Hollys and their boarders, is among other things a "finder," and Loomis pays him to locate Martha.

Director Marion McClinton's credits say he has directed every entry in Wilson's cycle, including last year's King Hedley II, for which he nabbed a Tony nomination. Maybe there's something to be said for stepping out of one's comfort zone, because the play unfolds without a lick of invention. In the various characters' monologues, for instance, McClinton has lighting designer Donald Holder dim the major lights and spot the monologist while the other cast members stand around. Neil Patel's set is nice but equally unremarkable, with a kitchen table too small to serve much purpose in a boarding house.

There are other glitches for which only Wilson can be faulted. Early in the play, for example, Bertha tells Bynum that a woman came by to see him but was told she'd need to come back later -- though, according to the text, Bynum was right outside the back door when the woman arrived. Later, Bertha tells Selig to settle down, even though he hasn't raised his ire or his voice one iota. It may be picayune to pinpoint these sorts of inconsistencies, yet they keep the play from becoming anything more than an average night at the theater.

Perfectly Frank: Between songs, the cast of Quality Hill Playhouse's All Sinatra fills in the cracks with biographical data about the man it salutes. For example, there's the story about one record-industry flack who wanted to de-ethnicize Sinatra's name, suggesting "Frankie Satin." Sinatra refused, saying a name like that would relegate him to a life singing aboard cruise ships. The reference is funny -- but it's also what the first half of the show feels like: a canned musical revue that provides small comforts as the cruise ship lists left and right.

While Act One has its musical moments, such as "At Long Last Love" and "The Tender Trap," the "Sinatra did this" and "Sinatra did that" script feels prerecorded and frozen, like an audio-tape tour of a Sinatra museum. From the opening of Act Two, though, a second wind seems to sweep the stage. A wonderful arrangement of "The Lady Is a Tramp" makes it clear that the show has much more to give. J. Kent Barnhart, Melinda MacDonald and Jim Korinke are looser and breezier than in the first half, delivering spirited versions of "New York, New York" (which has a surfeit of emotional resonance post-September 11), "Mack the Knife," and "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry."

Perhaps no one but Sinatra should sing "Summer Wind," but a sharply dressed MacDonald gives it a good kick anyway. She and Barnhart spar amiably in "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and Barnhart alone gives that melancholy "One for My Baby" a smoky sheen. Steve Lenhert's bass plucking and Ken Remmert's drumming add a great deal of zest to Barnhart's always impressive piano playing.

MacDonald says early in the show that there will be "no turned stones" in this Sinatra story, thus his mob connections and treatment of women get no play. This is a tribute, after all, not an E! True Hollywood Story. But there are entertaining tidbits nonetheless: two tales alleging Sinatra's reputation as the best tipper in the business and one about his love of the color orange. As MacDonald adds at the close of the show, Frank is gone but, because his voice and repertoire are so timeless, we will always have him around.


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