The soul most possessed by "Soul Possessed" is director-choreographer Debbie Allen's. In troweling on the layers of her overwrought dance-musical, which premiered at the Kennedy Center over the weekend, Allen must have thought she was channeling some great show business dance master of the past--Bob Fosse, perhaps, or maybe Jerome Robbins.
Instead, what we get is a souped-up Oscar fest.
To tell her voodoo tale of love and death on the bayou, Allen summoned a potent spirit to her aid: the grand, glitzy commercial spirit that she has ridden like a wave and that has landed her backstage at the Academy Awards, where she has created flashy smoke-and-light-show dance numbers year after year. It has propelled her into the movies and television, and now, she and the Kennedy Center hope, it will carry "Soul Possessed" to Broadway or even Hollywood.
That, at least, was the idea behind this thing, commissioned by the center. And that is why it has the look of big bucks and the lure of big names--R&B queen Patti LaBelle, composers James Ingram and Arturo Sandoval, and dancers Tai Jimenez, formerly of Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Desmond Richardson, fresh from "Fosse." But along the way, "Soul Possessed" lost its soul, its clarity of concept, its focus. Perhaps it never had one.
Sandwiched in it somewhere is a story, told largely through dance, that takes place "between New Orleans and Heaven," as Allen writes in the program. Pretty, young Ysabel (Jimenez) is set to marry her longtime love, Luke (Richardson), until dashing drifter Jesus (flamenco dancer Miguel Angel) enters the picture. Ysabel is torn between the two, which leads the men to a fight to the death. She is left alone and cursed, tormented by their warring souls.
There are some problems with the casting here. The main one is the pairing of Richardson, a onetime principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, with Angel. While Angel hammers the stage in an impressive flamenco display, he is no match for Richardson's explosive stretch. And perhaps one reason Richardson doesn't get much chance to show his talents is that he would dance circles around Angel. Jimenez's role is also watered down; her one faintly balletic number looks like something plucked from a school recital.
But who's noticing the details? Over the course of the 2 1/2-hour spectacle, we meet a parade of other characters. Constantly shadowing the action is the figure of Death, Rasta Thomas as a studly marvel in black leather pants, with a scowl and a soaring jump. The taut, regal Carmen de Lavallade, her luminous stage presence undimmed by age, plays Luke's shrewish mother. There's a large gospel contingent, a scattering of cute little tykes, African dancers and drummers, blues musicians, a couple of hoofers and a chicken-sacrificing Santeria pageant.
And of course, there's the show-stopping Lady LaBelle, who plays nightclub owner Aunt Sally, sweeping onstage not nearly often enough with her five-inch heels and her roof-raising meow-growl. Her standout snarling nightclub number is almost enough to burn everything else out of memory.
One thing left out, however, is a measure of taste. At one point, Jimenez, who had been one of Dance Theatre of Harlem's most lyrical ballerinas, is abruptly stripped down to her thong by Angel (who keeps his clothes on during their love scene, an unsavory statement, if you ask me). In a lap dance routine at Aunt Sally's club, Allen positions her lovely school-age daughter, Vivian Nixon, front and center to perform the most flagrantly rump-wiggling, crotch-o-centric number.
Even so, heaps of credit are due the performers, who play "Soul" to the hilt despite what must have been a chaotically brief rehearsal period. (At times, LaBelle appeared to be reading lyrics out of her hand-held fan.) Despite its pedigree, the music is unremarkable--not a single memorable tune out of the whole array of rock-and-roll, blues, rap, gospel, soul, Latin guitar and Afro-Cuban drums. Paul Tazewell's costumes are fittingly outrageous.
Allen has become a Kennedy Center favorite, having created two successful children's productions there in recent years ("Pepito's Story" and "Brothers of the Knight")--and another is reportedly in the works. She has undeniable skill in goosing events with big ensemble numbers that at times coalesce into something electric. Her use of the body is overtly seductive, and she's not shy about flaunting a dancer's technical tricks--tight turns, flying jumps, eye-popping feats of flexibility, all of which make her choreography easy to watch.
But there's little effort made at developing characters or at searching her story for nuance. For all its praiseworthy mix of cultures, "Soul Possessed" is alarmingly heavy on the stereotypes and remains predictable to its core.
Allen started with an admirable premise: to refocus the musical on movement, to reconnect with the dance impulse that powered the big shows once upon a time. But she gives in too easily to the pleasure principle, favoring gleam over substance. There are many bright and pretty things in "Soul Possessed," but it ends up dulled by its own excess.