A fearful Francine Williams (Janelle Lasalle) marches for freedom on Bloody Sunday in Berkeley Playhouse's World Premiere production of Bridges: A New Musical directed by Karen Altree Piemme, performing at the Julia Morgan Theater, Now – March 6, 2016. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio.
A fearful Francine Williams (Janelle Lasalle) marches for freedom on Bloody Sunday in Berkeley Playhouse’s world premiere production of Bridges: A New Musical directed by Karen Altree Piemme. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

By Ross Stapleton-Gray

Berkeley Playhouse has built a solid, inspiring bridge — a bridge that may point toward its future — in its first commissioned new musical, Bridges: A New Musical, running through March 6 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts.

With book and lyrics by Cheryl L. Davis, and music by Douglas J. Cohen, the play weaves back and forth between two stories: one set in Selma, Alabama in 1965; and another in the Bay Area in 2008. The first is focused on the marches, and the violence visited on the marchers, during the civil-rights era, wrapped around a romance; the second is a coming-of-age story set amid the crisis of California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 referendum to ban same-sex marriage, after a California Supreme Court ruling had initially made it possible.

More Americans will be familiar with the former than with California’s struggle over Prop 8 and its (temporary) impact on the progress of same-sex marriage, but, for a Bay Area audience, the two both resonate; the play is structured on their co-mingling, and that works very, very well.

Franki (Nandi Drayton), Jasmine (Kaylamay Suarez) and the cast proclaim “This I Will Overcome” in Bridges: A New Musical. Photo: Ben Krantz Studio.

The acting is superb: powerful performances, no wrong notes, from the leads to every ensemble role. Nandi Drayton, formerly Berkeley Playhouse’s go-to little girl star (as Oliver in Oliver!, and Annie in Annie), is excellent as Franki Henderson, an uncertain, questioning teen, not sure if her next step will take her over the edge and into the abyss, or onto a bridge she can’t see, or yet trust will be there.

Many others are just as good, from Amanda King (Grandmother), through Janelle Lasalle and Joshua Marx (Francine and Bobby), to Nicolas Bearde and Dana Lewenthal (Franki’s parents). Berkeley Playhouse has always had an aptitude for good casting, and for drawing quality performances from local actors, and both are on display here.

I have griped in the past,about anemic musical backing to large casts on the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts’ large, open stage. However, this show’s modest five-piece band, coupled with numerous choir numbers from both periods in the play, managed to fill the space to the rafters with song. Set design was also strong, with looming bridge components used for multimedia display, and the lighting design and execution was first rate.

Following the opening night show, Berkeley Playhouse founding artistic director Elizabeth McKoy spoke optimistically of the possibility for future new works, and I’m hoping this show is indeed a bridge to a future of original musicals and plays (Berkeley Playhouse will stage its very first non-musical, To Kill a Mockingbird, later this season (all the more timely for author Harper Lee’s recent passing).

Bridges reminded me of American Conservatory Theater’s 2011 production of a musical based on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. That show almost certainly won’t make an evolutionary climb to Broadway… it was a rather unremarkable translation to the stage of Maupin’s enjoyable novels. As a much more modest enterprise, Berkeley Playhouse delivered the much better show. Its two historical episodes make for a moving, educational experience, and it ought to reach many more audiences. McKoy would like that. “We are hoping that this show has ‘long legs’ and is shared with theaters across the country,” she said.

The show is a perfect fit for this theatre, in a building that architect Julia Morgan originally created as a church. The soaring vaulted ceiling and open thrust stage give the music room to spill out over the audience, yet still allow it to hang on every quiet word between a father and daughter, a man and a wife, a man and his husband.

You’re not likely to leave the theater humming any of its tunes — while the show is drenched in music, especially in numerous choir scenes, this isn’t a Disney production with catchy pop hooks. This is more a show with a message; you may well find yourself just wanting to sing out loud, to add your voice to a joyful noise, as bridges are crossed.

‘Bridges’ runs through March 6 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave. in Berkeley. Ticket prices: $23 to $60, with a pay-what-you-can night on March 3rd. Group rates available: Visit Berkeley Playhouse online. Call the box office at 510-845-8542, ext. 351.

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