The set at the Pittsburgh Playwright Theater at 937 Liberty Avenue had been transformed to look like the front area of a club, and over the next two hours it would become various locations, including grandmother’s house, rehearsal area, mother’s hospital room, and the airport, the drama allowed the audience to successfully use our minds to go those places that created the framework for the of Star of the show, Renn Woods.
Saturday, Oct. 5, was opening night of “SOLD: Renn Woods In Concert.” This piece took the audience on a powerful musical journey through the life of Renn Woods, beginning when she was a mere 11 years old; when as a child prodigy, she would begin her career traveling around the world. Her travels included performances with such notables as Bob Hope on his USO tours as well as opening for Bill Cosby. The national audience would be introduced to her in her role as Fanta in the, hit TV series “Roots” where she played Kunta Kenta’s love interest.
The production, presented in a series of flash backs, revealed the advancement of the performer’s life, including the joys of her youthful accomplishments, the abuse and misuse of her at the age of 15 by her first manager, Lester, artfully played by veteran actor, Leslie “Ezra” Smith, to her shining moment when she as a young mom would have at least two opportunities to be featured in a concert in Paris.
Under the skillful direction of Mark Southers and Montez Freeland, the music and the dialogue made a smooth connection; allowing the raw places in the myopic to be tempered by the places of delight. If you have a clue of the musicians’ life, then you could feel the struggles of this young girl on the road to stardom.
The performances were stellar and skillful, all though Woods had duel roles, each transition was handled well with no awkward moments.
There was toe taping, and finger snapping and poignant moments that hit the audience deep in their emotion.
Woods as the playwright, composer, biographer, and star of the production, brought a all of her experience skills to the stage. It was a highly commendable juggling act, wearing each of those hats, her energy was contagious and saturated the space. This in spite of sitting out in the audience telling much of hers story. The incredible compositions, all written by her, had heart, strength and power and all came together to present the audience with a mental shot of some of the rugged spots in her life.
Ezra Smith was a true ‘standout’ for the night; as part of his multiple roles was that of the abusive manager of the very young Renn Woods, played by Alya Sims. Smith was definitely up to the challenge of the cruel creepy nuance he had to embrace to be that person; it was a vivid display of his consummate versatility and when he transitioned to his alternate characters including that of brother to Woods, there was no sign of the others.
This play is a must see for those who crave a ‘back story’ to life of an artist, especially one who has made it all look so easy as “SOLD: Renn Woods In Concert,” showed the depth and breath of her talent. And the presence of a live band comprised of four gifted Pittsburgh musicians; Music Director, Mike Borowski on Guitar, Nick DeCesare, on Keyboards; George Held III, on drums and Tony Campbell on Saxophone, tied the production together creating the perfect backdrop for this mesmerizing tale.
Woods was asked in a brief talk back how she was able to do this piece and revisit all the emotional places night after night, she answered by saying “I am able to do it when surrounded by a talented supporting cast like this one is” and she was correct; her cast members added just the right amount of yeast to this production to give it rising power; they were vocalist Sandy Dowe, Les Howard, Delana Flowers, Jamilah Chanie, Cheryl M. El-Walker, and Marcus Southers.
(This production runs at the Pittsburgh Playwright Theater until Oct. 20. For more information and tickets check out the web page at www.pghplaywrights.com.)
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