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Andre Garner, Kevin R. Free, and Rodney Hicks
in From My Hometown
Photo Credit: Emilie Baltz
Chock-full of R&B songs from the late '60s and early '70s and littered with all sorts of allusions to popular African-American music from Motown to Jackie Wilson, the Amas Musical Theater production of From My Hometown might be described as Mamma Mia! with R&B instead of ABBA. There are obvious similarities between the two shows, including the use of pre-existing music and a plot concerning friends who form a band by the end of the show and offer an encore number in extravagant costumes during the curtain call. Another similarity is that both shows will have great appeal for many audience members while leaving others cold.

From My Hometown is the tale of three enthusiastic singers-to-be (Kevin R. Free, Andre Garner, and Rodney Hicks) who hop to New York City in the 1980s for their big shot at fame: a talent contest at the Apollo Theater. After gaining callbacks, they spend the majority of the show waiting outside on the street, thinking about the past and breaking into a few dozen songs. After each of the guys is rejected, the show speeds into the future and we see them form a successful musical group.

Despite this rather lame setup, the show has lots of exciting moments. It consists of 36 R&B songs; most of them are pre-existing numbers by such people as Isaac Hayes and Steve Cooper but there are six new songs by Lee Summers, Ty Stephens, and Herbert Rawlings, Jr. Some of the more well-known items include "Chain Gang," "Bone Dry," "Me and Mrs. Jones," "Try a Little Tenderness," and "Tobacco Road."

Thirty-six loud songs without an intermission can become irritating very fast; fortunately, Free, Garner, and Hicks work well together as an ensemble and take charge of things. These soulful chaps know what this show needs them to do, and they do it well. Interestingly, the singers are named for their home towns -- Detroit (Andre Garner), Memphis (Kevin R. Free), and Philly (Rodney Hicks) -- thereby representing different areas of the United States that fostered African-American music. This says something about how much the music takes precedence over the characters themselves.

The dialogue in between the songs seems disjointed and tedious. After finishing a number, the three continue to comment on their current situation; then, 10 seconds later, one of them starts singing a cappella; then, 15 seconds later, the band starts playing and the number kicks in. The show would benefit from some jokes in these spots to ease the monotony of song after song after song.

Leslie Dockery has choreographed From My Hometown as if it were an actual concert: The performers always face the audience as they sway back and forth to the music. Each of them also has a tendency to raise his right arm in the air on the last high note of each song. At one point, the guys pick two girls out from the audience and bring them onstage.

As might be expected from this kind of show, there are moments when you no longer believe that these characters are expressing these sentiments; rather, they're just singing a song. For example, in "Across 110th Street," they comment on the pimps who roam Harlem looking for young girls to turn into prostitutes, and one can't help but wonder how they know about such things after having been in New York for only about 24 hours. Also, some very emotional numbers have been included in what was probably an attempt to add drama to the proceedings; Detroit, for instance, breaks out into tears while singing to his girlfriend on a Harlem pay phone. Director Kevin Ramsey seems to have wanted to give the show some weight, but it works best when it simply accepts what it is and has fun with its concept.

From My Hometown was created specifically to evoke the moods of late 20th century African-American rhythm and blues. It will definitely appeal to those who enjoy that musical genre -- and, with the upcoming vacancy of many Off-Broadway theaters, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the show transfers for an extended commercial run.

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