André Garner, Kevin R. Free, and Rodney Hicks inFrom My Hometown(Photo © Joan Marcus)
André Garner, Kevin R. Free, and Rodney Hicks in
From My Hometown
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In "New York State of Mind," Billy Joel sings about needing to get back to the City because he's been out of touch with the rhythm and the blues. Boy, would he be getting back in touch this week! For one thing, Ruth Brown, the so-called "Queen of Rhythm and Blues," is staging a comeback that has crowds hurrying to the East Side's Le Jazz Au Bar to see what greatness is. And, for another thing, the exhilarating From My Hometown has opened.

The three-man show -- what a trifecta of talented R&B-ers the singers are! -- is subtitled "A Rags to Riches Celebration of the American Dream in Classic Rhythm & Blues." The revue picks up where a few other shows about African-American aspirations have left off. Call it Dreamboys or Noise/Funk Part II or Mama, I Still Gotta Sing but notice that, as conceived by Lee Summers and written by Summers with Ty Stephens and Herbert Rawlings Jr. (with additional music by Summer, Stephens, and Will Barrow), it's a slick entertainment. It relies only on first-rate performances of top-flight material on one all-purpose-Manhattan set (by Matthew Myhrum) to make its obvious and less-than-obvious points.

The show's primary concern, as was once the primary concern of all musicals, is to give customers their money's worth in good times. Its second concern is to tell in shorthand the story of three crooning hopefuls who arrive in the Big Apple within days of each other. They're each determined to score in the Apollo Theater's potentially harsh open auditions. (Has any black singer ever not wanted to score at the Apollo?) Philly (Rodney Hicks), Detroit (André Garner), and Memphis (Kevin R. Free) -- the only names by which the men are identified -- represent three separate rhythm and blues wellsprings. Jingoistic about their origins, the men are are unfriendly at first. To goad one another about their influences, they throw around names of some of the most important figures in '60s R&B. A couple of times, Detroit gets his shoes stepped on; the same offense leads to tragedy in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom but, in From My Hometown, it only flares up and just as quickly dies down.

For all their bickering, there's no missing where the trio is headed -- especially when, in a contrivance easier to take than it sounds, they're revealed to be cousins. These three are on their way to the heights. Why else would Matthew Myhrum's false proscenium be dotted with chase-lights? They have to flash on at some giddy moment. The heroes' journey takes them from the Apollo stage to the lonely streets of Harlem and the lonely benches at Port Authority, then back to the Apollo. Along the route, they wonder whether they have the right stuff and whether they should have left their girlfriends at home. Of course, it turns out that the talented lads have made the right choice -- as if there's any doubt of that in the minds of audience members.

From My Hometown has to do with R&B fusion. The ambitious Philly, Detroit, and Memphis represent rhythm and blues threads that, the tuner's collaborators must believe, are even more potent when woven together. When the lightbulb goes on over their three noggins, they come up with a name for themselves that stresses the show's positive message. "Divided, we're pretty damn good; united, we're awesome" is the healing statement. That could be the Summers-Stephens-Rawlings way of making an even more trenchant comment. From My Hometown is set for the most part in 1980, when hip-hop was the musical genre that growing numbers of young African-Americans were thinking about exploring and exploiting. In its early days, hip-hop was frequently divisive, and perhaps that stance is what's being repudiated here. Then again, perhaps not.

There's nothing divisive about Kevin R. Free, André Garner, and Rodney Hicks. Each of them is an exploding landmine on his own, and when harmonizing, they're a barrage. As Memphis, Free has the role that audiences usually gravitate to, since he's the one with endearing bumpkin ways. But there's nothing of the bumpkin in him when, hat with pushed-up brim on his head, he glides through Rufus Thomas's "Walking The Dog" or Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay." Garner, as the character with the highest street-savvy quotient, has the highest voice. It's a sweet tenor that gets the ladies every time but never more so than when he enriches the Chi-Lites' "Oh, Girl." Rodney Hicks plays the Philly smoothie who gets gruff from time to time. He cuts satin in Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones" and swings his voice like an axe in Jackie Wilson's "Chain Gang."

André Garner, Kevin R. Free, and Rodney Hicks inFrom My Hometown(Photo © Joan Marcus)
André Garner, Kevin R. Free, and Rodney Hicks in
From My Hometown
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Hicks is also the step-out hoofer of the threesome, although he, Garner, and Free do all the right moves throughout the entire intermissionless piece. Those moves were handed to them by director-choreographer Kevin Ramsey, co-choreographers Leslie Dockery, and associate choreographer Robert H. Fowler. The latter trio has turned the show into a compendium of flowing high and low steps that top the Four Tops and out-Temptation the Temptations. (Did Ramsey, Dockery, and Fowler try the routines out on themselves before bringing the boys in? That's got to be why there are three choreographers.)

In addition to collecting what could pass for a run-through of the top 50 R&B classics of all time, Summers has supplied some candidates for Hot 97 and WLIB airplay. His title tune has funk to spare and his "Confrontation" packs a theatrical wallop. Summers has been bitten by the R&B bug, and he's biting back with equivalent sting. His tunes, dropped intermittently among the oldies that suddenly sound like newies, support the argument that the rhythm and blues legacy in this country deserves to be the focus of much pride. Any set of songs that satisfies and gratifies an audience the way these songs do has earned respect for its purveyors, whether they're from Philly, Detroit, Memphis, Chicago, or Jersey City.

Not enough can be said about the show's band, which is directed and orchestrated by Jo Lynn Burks and includes conductor/pianist Stacey Penson, drummer Kenneth Crutchfield, bassist Thom Zablinger, and guitarist Jim Hershman. Sound designer Ryan Powers, presiding over the mix, offers invaluable assistance; lighting designer Aaron Spivey does the same; and costume designer Deborah A. Cheretun, who outfits the singers in '80s street fashions for most of the 90 minutes, looks to have raided Cab Calloway's closet for the spectacular finale look. Ooh, child!

Interviewed in The New York Times last week, Ruth Brown remarked about what she sees happening to rhythm and blues today. "I'd like to hope that there are going to be some legends coming from somewhere," she said. "but I don't see it right now. I don't know if I'll live long enough to see it. Maybe that's why I'm here. I don't know." When she's finished her stint at Le Jazz Au Bar, she might want to catch From My Hometown to find out. That's where she'll see a reminder of the legends that were. She'll also see that, in addition to recalling an R&B age that once was, the show points toward a rejuvenated future.