As a concert, Eli's Comin' is thrilling. Led by pianist and musical director Joe Rubinstein, the band is marvelous, with guitarist Marvin Sewell and trumpeter Eddie Allen deserving of special mention. Diedre Murray's vocal and instrumental arrangements are alternately haunting and rollicking and cool. And the singers! Judy Kuhn, a longtime Broadway favorite, is the biggest draw here, but co-stars Ronnell Bey, Mandy Gonzalez, and Anika Noni Rose also have the soul that this music requires. For pure listening pleasure, there's nothing better playing in NYC right now.
The show has moments of pure joy and deep melancholy, but I would say that the former are handled best. Not that the dark moodiness isn't appealing, and it matches many of the Nyro selections sung here, but those songs generally prove to be the weak points of the show. This problem is largely the result of co-creators Bruce Buschel's and Diane Paulus' concept of the piece. Eli's Comin' has a slight narrative structure propelled by the journey of the character Emmie (Kuhn). The problem is that the nature of this journey, and the other characters' places in it, remains unclear for some time. Nyro wrote some very colorful, poetic, but also cryptic lyrics, and this fact coupled with a lack of clear enunciation from some of the singers makes several of the more introspective numbers simply puzzling. As the sadly underused but nonetheless wonderful Wilson Jermaine Heredia dances seductively around the women, who sing of torture and temptation, it is difficult to decide if Emmie's story is about love found and lost, drug addiction, both, or something else entirely.
The show does pick up in the second half, as we hear more of Nyro's doo-wop and Gospel-influenced songs. Emmie's conflict eventually reveals itself more clearly and culminates in a kind of musical rehab meeting where the women try to cope with their problems; it's the most compelling moment in the show as they sing the steady and hypnotic "Been On A Train." Kuhn is given her greatest opportunity to shine when she sings one of Nyro's biggest hits, "Stoney End." After that, we are given a few life-affirming songs for the cast (and the audience) to revel in.
Personally, I like the "from happiness to sorrow to redemption" trajectory, so I enjoyed that aspect of the show despite the muddiness of the imposed story. What bothered me is that, by the end of Eli's Comin', I didn't feel as though Nyro's songs had really stuck with me. Did they lose something in this setting? Would I have "got it" if I'd grown up in the '60s? Perhaps the lyrics just don't speak to me.
There remains the more general question of whether or not Nyro's work is suited to the stage. Regardless, the people behind Eli's Comin' get credit for assembling such excellent performers and musicians to present these songs. Though I sometimes found it hard not to giggle at the hippie-ness of it all, the rousing opening number "Stoned Soul Picnic" is too groovy and too much fun not to enjoy. People who grew up on this music will love the dose of nostalgia, while even the most cynical members of younger generations are likely to feel their doubts blowin' away.