Jevon McFerrin and Umi Shakti in Tearing Down The Walls
(© Richard Conde)
Jevon McFerrin and Umi Shakti in Tearing Down The Walls
(© Richard Conde)
Daniel Beaty's new musical Tearing Down the Walls, at the Riverside Theatre, has a catchy score and an only moderately successful script. Featuring book, lyrics, and direction by Beaty with music by Beaty and the songwriting team of Jamal Joseph and Charles Mack, the roughly two-and-a-half hour show consistently entertains, even if it is unevenly performed and some of the staging choices beg for reconsideration.

Set in Harlem, the musical centers on Renee (Umi Shakti) and her longtime friends Jessica (Kelechi Ezie) and Rhonda (Dietrice A. Bolden). Renee works in a local mortgage office, and has a crush on her boss, Dennis (Jevon McFerrin). While the feeling seems mutual, it's complicated by the existence of a mysterious woman named Allison, who is referred to but never seen.

This potential romance is further jeopardized by Renee's fling with Tyson (Rumando Kelley), a handsome construction worker she meets one night on a subway platform. It's pretty obvious from the get-go that the Renee-Tyson affair is doomed to failure, but it has long-lasting repercussions that sends Renee's world into a tailspin.

The music mixes a pop and Broadway sound with gospel, soul, and R&B influences. A few of the cast members suffer from pitch problems, although Bolden's booming soprano is a definite highlight. Sadly, the performers aren't able to make much of Dell Howlett's rather lackluster choreography, with the notable exception of McFerrin, who puts his dancing skills to impressive and hilarious use in the song, "Talk to Me." Also making a good impression are the projections of paintings by the artist Bryan Collier, which are beautifully evocative and used as changing backdrops that complement the onstage action.

While Beaty traffics in a traditional romantic comedy formula in his plot construction, he also pushes a social agenda that delves into topics such as gentrification, HIV/AIDS, and faith. At times, characters will face front for some of the more agitprop-like speeches, and the show also contains a recurring device in which the characters deliver spoken word pieces, as if at a poetry slam. Some of the speechifying feels strained, but other parts are powerfully delivered and even quite funny.

The most effective integration of Beaty's political themes with the forward momentum of the musical is contained within the impassioned anthem, "Harlem, Will You Let Me Stay?" which is nicely sung by Adrienne C. Moore as Mrs. Rogers, a longtime Harlem resident who faces eviction because her building is about to be sold off to developers.

This role is one of several parts that Moore plays under the umbrella designation of "Angel Unaware." The concept here is that all of Moore's characters are actually the same disguised angel from Heaven who is helping to guide the lives of Renee and her friends. Unfortunately, this device often feels forced and sometimes downright silly.

In addition, many of the show's plot twists come across as overly melodramatic, and the characterizations cartoonish. This is perhaps inadvertently reinforced by a curious costuming decision (design by Catherine "Cat" Fisher) in the opening number that emphasizes the "types" of the characters, with Renee, Rhonda, and Jessica literally dressed as nun, fighter, and whore, respectively. Not only is this reductive, it is also confusing -- particularly in the case of Renee.

Shakti tends to telegraph her character's intentions in too obvious a manner, particularly in the first act, but successfully conveys Renee's emotional journey within the show. The remaining cast members all have good moments, but none of them bring much depth to their roles.

Beaty, as both writer and director, shares in the blame for this. But he also deserves credit for putting together a fun production with a worthwhile message that is likely to have audience members up on their feet cheering at show's end.