The new Hartford Stage show Breath & Imagination is living up to its name by breathing fresh air into the music-theater genre and adding imaginative touches to everything from the casting to the post-show discussions.
The show is a biography of classical-music singing sensation Roland Hayes, a groundbreaking African-American superstar of the early 20th century. Breath & Imagination stars the elegant baritone Jubilant Sykes, whose own concert repertoire veers from opera to spirituals to jazz. The show, directed by new Hartford Stage artistic director Darko Tresnjak, is intimate in its staging and arrangements. Besides Sykes, the cast consists of Kecia Lewis-Evans (from Broadway's The Drowsy Chaperone and Shrek the Musical, and last year's Long Wharf Theatre revival of Ain't Misbehavin') as Hayes' mother Angel Mo' and Tom Frey (of the long-running nationally touring keyboard-based entertainment 2 Pianos/4 Hands) not just providing live piano accompaniment but taking on a slew of supporting roles, including "Preacher," "Frenchman," "King George V" and "The Horse."
Breath & Imagination's creator, Daniel Beaty, has prior CT connections; he attended Yale University, where he was one of the few undergrads allowed to do a show (about another great African-American vocalist, Paul Robeson) at the Yale Cabaret.
The production of Breath & Imagination is supported in part by some $6000 in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Following the January 15 performance of the show, there was a special panel discussion — not with theater professionals, as usually happens at these things, but clergy from the Greater Hartford religious community, in a discussion of faith. It runs through Feb. 9.
In other theater news, TheaterWorks has announced that it will bring TV sitcom stalwart Debra Jo Rupp ("Better With You," "That '70s Show," "The Jeff Foxworthy Show") to Hartford with her one-woman show Dr. Ruth, All the Way, in which she plays mass-media sex therapist Ruth Westheimer. The play, written by Mark St. Germain and directed by Julianne Boyd, was a hit last year at Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts; it plays Hartford May 31-July 7… In New Haven, the Long Wharf has opened the world premiere of Laura Jacqmin's "horror weight loss comedy" January Joiner and the Yale Rep is prepping its new production of the decade-old Irish comedy hit Stones in His Pockets, with Euan Morton and Fred Arsenault portraying a whole village of characters.