[Metroactive Stage]

[ Stage Index | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Uncle John's Dramaturgy

[whitespace] Cumberland Blues Your Cheatin' Heart: Mick Jones (Jonathan Williams) tries to win his daddy's mine in a poker game and win back the girl he done wrong (Lisa Recker) in 'Cumberland Blues.'

Dave Lepori

The Dead get the musical treatment

By Anne Gelhaus

FOR THOSE of us who never sought the Grateful Dead's cultural embrace, the band's allure was hard to grasp. What, besides drug-induced euphoria, could entice thousands to follow a sound that could best be described as inoffensive?

Cumberland Blues, a new musical based around the songs of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, answers that question quite nicely. San Jose playwright Michael Mann has spun the folk tales told in many of the Dead's early songs into one cohesive yarn, and the intimate show he's created sheds some light on why legions of Deadheads had such personal responses to the music.

It helps that the cast assembled by the San Jose Stage Company for the premiere production displays more vocal and dramatic talent than did Garcia when he was alive to warble his own tunes. The performers breathe life not only into their characters and their songs but into Cumberland, the West Virginia mining town where the show is set. They're aided in no small part by Daniel E. Gaylord's set design and Ardith Ann Gray's costumes, which combine to give the town a proper Depression-era feel.

Mann's script centers around Peter Jones (Stephen Gill), who owns the mine and the town's saloon, and his three wayward sons, who are called back to town when their father learns he's dying from black lung disease. Each of the Jones brothers left Cumberland to try to make a better life for himself, but only Pete Jr. (Ric Iverson) succeeded, joining a traveling ministry in part to shield himself from his past.

Iverson opens both acts from the pulpit, where he preaches to the choir both literally and figuratively by singing "Uncle John's Band" and "Ripple," songs that any Deadhead should recognize as calls to worship. Music director Don Daly has framed these chestnuts properly as call-and-response numbers, and Iverson is backed by a quintet of able musicians and an ensemble that more than does justice to the songs' tight harmonies.

Other cast members do equal justice to the lesser-known tunes in the show. As ne'er-do-well Mick Jones, Jonathan Williams handles high-energy songs like "Friend of the Devil" and "Bertha" with aplomb. And as Mindy, an orphan who has tended to Pete Sr. while waiting for Pete Jr. to return home, Jenny Lord proves that "I Will Love You," a Hunter-Garcia song never recorded by the Dead, can still have its own life as a show tune.

Ultimately, the music in Cumberland Blues speaks more clearly than the show that's built around it. Mann has done an admirable job of linking the songs together and mining the lyrics for plot points, but his storyline comes to an anticlimax. The Jones brothers are largely unchanged by their father's death and the events that follow, and--in what is perhaps a fitting metaphor for Deadheads in the post-Garcia era--the audience is left to search for its own closure.

Cumberland Blues plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through July 5 at The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$19. (408/283-7142)

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the June 18-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate