Combining two popular trends in contemporary theater-the one-man show and the seemingly endless fascination with the music of Harlem in the '20s-"Signature" with Harry L. Burney III was presented Saturday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.
Although described in the program as "an experimental project for creating new vehicles for individual performers," "Signature," with its rather conventional book, turned out to be more entertaining than innovative, relying heavily on the ingratiating talent of the artist to carry the program.
The staging of the piece is simple; the story line lean. Burney is cast as Jason L. Miller, a stage performer confined to his dressing room prior to, and following a closing night performance. It is a time he spends reflecting on Harlem's golden age of music-what Duke Ellington once described as "the world's most glamorous atmosphere" and what Miller hopes to recreate for the stage one day:
Whereas Ellington's music chronicled the Harlem story, "Signature" recalls the period with tunes by Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, the Gershwins and others, including original material by Burney's fine accompanist, Ben Carter. Considering the success of shows like "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Eubie" and "Bubbling Brown Sugar" the premise for "Signature" is hardly noteworthy; yet Burney's performance is always consistent and quite often compelling.
He is an artist with a remarkably broad stylistic range. His rich baritone voice was playful and coy on Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose," but on more demanding material his articulate phrasing and full-throated volume immediately reflected his classical training. In what was certainly the highlight of the program, Burney's rendition of "Careless Love" took hold of a simple blues lyric and fashioned from it a striking spiritual.
But "Signature's" book by Niamani Mutima does little to support Burney's performance. The monologues are all too often discursive, dividing the program into fragments.
In the end, it was clear that the signature of the work was solely that of Harry L. Burney III whose commanding performance transcended many of the show's shortcomings.