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From the opening tableau of silhouetted dancers in a Louisiana juke joint to its high-energy finale, Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical is visually captivating and musically joyous. A world premiere, the production now at People’s Light is a skillful biography-with-music that engagingly chronicles the life of an under-recognized 20th-century pop star. But the show dives much deeper.
Writer B. Jeffrey Madoff chronicles both Price’s travails and triumphs in a thought-provoking look at the music industry and the challenges—then and now—of being a Black American.
Anxious to escape from Kenner, his backwater hometown outside New Orleans, Lloyd Price (1933-2021) skyrocketed to fame in 1952 with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” A cornerstone of rock-and-roll, the jaunty song was an instant crossover R&B hit that bridged the racial divide. Price was both a singer and songwriter—unusual at the time—and (over his long career) a resilient entertainer, creative entrepreneur, and civil-rights trailblazer who changed the industry.
No mere hagiography
“To keep his story alive,” Madoff (himself a multi-careerist in fashion, film, and entertainment) drafted the show’s book working with Price, who died last May as this production was being finalized. Using first-person storytelling and studded with 18 songs, 11 written by Price, Personality takes off from its first bar and carries the audience through this storied career.
Throughout the first act, the adult Price (Saint Aubyn) directly addresses the audience, as music-besotted Young Lloyd (Nathaniel Washington) catapults to stardom. Washington is riveting in a beautifully crafted and stunningly acted scene, as the young singer tentatively approaches the first microphone he’s ever used in the first recording studio he’s ever entered. Singing his composition “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” he wins over a skeptical record producer and dismissive session musicians (including pianist Fats Domino) as he slowly discovers his performing chops.
At the end of the show’s first act, the playwright brings both “Lloyds” together to sing Price’s “Mailman Blues,” another of the show’s galvanizing moments. And the second act sets Aubyn loose from his narrator’s job. This gifted performer is then able to masterfully channel Price’s mature style, unleashing a powerful, joyful characterization filled with passionate singing and smooth dance moves.
Madoff’s book crafts a sweeping narrative arc that (for the most part) cleanly and cogently chronicles a groundbreaking career. There are moments when Price’s hand is visible (in the treatment of his first wife Emma, for instance) and clouds the dramatic focus. But Madoff always gets back on track. This is no mere hagiography; the author tempers the play’s adulatory tone with realistic depictions of Price’s not-always-salutary behavior.
Shining moments for all
Personality is directed by acclaimed regional theater and Broadway veteran Sheldon Epps, who helms it with assurance and verve. Choreographer and Broadway regular Edgar Godineaux successfully underscores and illustrates the show’s successive time periods. In this powerhouse production, both Epps and Godineaux skillfully utilize their strong ensemble of 16 actors, singers, and dancers, many playing multiple roles.
Every company member has some shining moment, but of special note are Robert H. Fowler, Ben Dibble, and three show-stopping singers: Donnie Hammond (as gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe), Desireé Murphy (singing “Piece of My Heart”), and Miles Boone (channeling Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”). Stanley Wayne Mathis is powerful in the role of Harold Logan, Price’s early backer, confidant, and sometimes less-than-savory business partner.
Personality’s impressive production and design team is also filled with top-flight regional and Broadway talent able to expand this theater’s intimacy. David Gallo’s stunning multi-level setting brilliantly utilizes Steve Channon’s awe-inspiring time-traveling videos, and lighting by Jeff Croiter evokes both the hot drama of performance and the hard glare of Price’s challenges.
Karen Perry’s costumes accommodate quick character changes and illuminate the changing eras. Sound designer Robert Kaplowitz meets the ever-present challenge of integrating a huge soundscape into an intimate space. And kudos to Charles T. Brastow, director of production, for successfully knitting this huge company of designers and artisans together.
The essence of an icon
Of course, the engine of this show is the music, crammed with hits like Price’s “Stagger Lee” and the iconic title song. Music supervisor and pianist Shelton Becton (who’s worked with a host of singers including Roberta Flack, Patti Austin, and Audra McDonald) leads a hot onstage band (only five players!) that magically evokes the huge sounds of the era. Singing throughout is impeccable, and the solos, ensemble numbers, and back-up trios and quartets that rise out of the action perfectly evoke time and place.
In his program notes, People’s Light producing artistic director Zak Berkman says that this is the theater’s “first official song and dance musical,” and Personality is an auspicious leap into those challenging waters.
The show’s title song is certainly catchy, singable, and memorable. It earned Price the sobriquet “Mr. Personality,” and he lived up to that moniker. Echoing his signature anthem, the singer’s life was—over and over and over—a tale of resilience, optimism in the face of setbacks, and charisma tempered by generosity. Fueled by Price’s immense creativity and his own story-telling mission, Madoff captured the icon’s essence, and hopefully future productions will cement his legacy.
What, When, Where
Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical. By B. Jeffrey Madoff with Lloyd Price, music and lyrics by Price and others; directed by Sheldon Epps. Adults $45; youth $40. Through April 3, 2022, at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401), Malvern, PA. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org.
Patrons are required to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination and ID, or proof of negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of showtime. Masks must be worn inside the theater. There will be limited-capacity distanced performances of Personality on March 25, 27, 29, and April 1.
People’s Light is wheelchair accessible and offers audio-visual aids, smart-caption glasses, and open-caption performances. Call (610) 644-3500 for more accessibility information.
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