Rainbow colored shirts, tattered vests with peace buttons, and afros adorn the performers. A simple set of blocks, trash cans, and chairs make up the set design. A piano and drum set linger in the background. These are the calling cards of a hippie drum circle, or a production of Godspell. Turns out, it’s neither. It’s The Me Nobody Knows, a musical relic from the 1970s that Art Forms and Theatre Concepts offers this Piccolo season. The disappointments continue from there.
All that simple set allows the focus to rest squarely on the cast of 11 African-American actors and what they have to say. Which is a lot. About a lot. There’s no plot here. The show, adapted by Robert H. Livingston and Herb Schapiro with music by Gary William Friedman and lyrics by Will Holt, is based on the collected writings of hundreds of New York City children, and topics cover adults, racism, school, drug abuse, and sexuality.
A potentially thought-provoking premise is doomed from the start, because much of this show gets lost in the airwaves due to a lack of microphones, poor or non-existent projection from the actors, and the volume of the music. While most of the spoken dialogue can be heard, I could only make out one word in 10 during any given musical number, and since the bulk of the show (and almost all of the point) comes in the form of songs, I walked out knowing less about these characters than I did when I walked in. Being able to hear the songs would have at least made the incredibly repetitive choreography bearable.
The cast is comprised of strong singers, for what it’s worth. And one or two of them stood out as eye catchers (Joel Chapman and Juanita B. Green) because of their energy and commitment. The original production featured a mixture of black and white actors, but director Art Gilliard has chosen to use an all black cast. It’s unclear why the change was made in this production. It’s also unclear what difference it would have made.
We live in a post-Passing Strange world, and the bar for musical storytelling (at least for me) has been raised substantially. The Me Nobody Knows cannot hope to reach it.
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