Gwen, Patricia, Beryl and Annie, the four feisty, loquacious women who inhabit the musical revue "Over Forty," waste no time in letting you know that hitting "the big four-O" is no joy ride. Standing beneath an enormous, multicolored clock face emblazoned with their portraits and a blazing birthday cake, they throw back their shoulders and sing:
They say it's just a number
But I'm not getting any younger
Somebody shake me
Somebody take me
Subtlety, you see, is not the point of this entertaining but cliche-laden show, first produced at New York's Billie Holiday Theatre and now playing at the Takoma Theatre. Like countless television sitcoms, this tribute to middle-aged black women offers up a host of much-discussed issues in a predictable, feel-good format. During the course of the evening, librettist Celeste Walker touches on everything from adultery to menopause, child-rearing to sex discrimination. And let's not forget the biological time clock. Or the hot flash. Or the trip down memory lane, which in this case means reminiscing about slumber parties and the March on Washington. Each of these issues merits a short, joke-laced monologue by one or more of the women, followed by a musical number that weds the subject to a catchy, oft-repeated phrase and insistent beat.
Weldon Irvine, the man responsible for "Over Forty's" music, lyrics, musical arrangement and direction (he also plays keyboards in the offstage band), has come up with a compositional style that blends pop, jazz and gospel into one simplistic, easy-to-swallow package. His score also makes liberal and clever use of well-loved spirituals, folk tunes and oldies -- "Since I Laid My Burdens Down," "We Shall Overcome," "In the Still of the Night," "Stand By Me" -- that can't help but elicit nostalgic yelps and sighs from the audience.
Thankfully, the four performers imbue this color-by-number format with their considerable comedic and musical gifts. As the sardonic, recently divorced Gwen, Eunice Newkirk exudes just the right mixture of raunchiness and wistfulness, and can she move her hips! La'Rita Gaskins plays baby-obsessed corporate exec Patricia as a wired, emotionally strung-out wreck who rarely stops moving or talking. In the role of the religious, domestic goddess Annie, Lady Peachena is a combination of sage and clown; as her deep and powerful voice sends forth waves of gospel-tinged sound, she gestures goofily, and her elastic face assumes a variety of loony expressions. Most winning of all is Marisa Francesca Turner, who, as the witty, self-deprecating attorney Beryl, exhibits a physical grace, comic timing and vocal virtuosity just a bit reminiscent of Nell Carter.
Despite the uninspired staging, bare-bones lighting and sets, overaggressive drumming and generally mediocre nature of the material, these four powerhouses still manage to make middle age look and sound funny, exciting and inspirational.
Over Forty. Book by Celeste Walker. Music, lyric, arrangements and direction by Weldon Irvine; choreography by DeWarren Moses. Scenic and Costume designs by Felix E. Cochren; lighting design by Christian Epps. Directed by Marjorie Moon. With La'Rita Gaskins, Eunice Newkirk, Lady Peachena, Marisa Francesca Turner; Greg Latty on drums, Jerry Brooks on bass, Weldon Irvine on keyboards. Through Dec. 2 at Takoma Theatre.