A musical roller-coaster ride through the African American experience is a journey well worth taking at MetroStage, thanks to four gifted vocalists, five skilled jazz musicians and a good idea.
From the Great Migration northward to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War eras to the unique stresses of being black and a celebrity, “Shake Loose: A Musical Night of Blues, Moods & Icons” takes on a lot and handles most of it with panache.
Director/choreographer Thomas W. Jones II has perfected a way of blending music and history, song and spoken-word. In “Shake Loose” he threads together 39 songs from past shows that he and composers William Knowles and William Hubbard have created, many seen at MetroStage over the years.
Much credit goes to supple-voiced and canny performers Rayshun LaMarr, Anthony Manough, Roz White and Lori Williams. All four convey heartbreak, longing, love and laughter with ease. White brings down the house singing about a sexual encounter that rocked her world (and flipped her wig) in “Barely Breathing” from “Three Sistahs.” Manough is equally hilarious in “Blue Basement Wet” from the show “Holler: The Prince of Soul’s Last Dance,” playing a cocky young denizen of ’70s dance parties — a fellow so drenched in after-shave and sweat that he literally knocks women off their feet.
Williams lends her velvety voice and deep feeling to “River Swollen With My Tears” from “Two Queens, One Castle.”
“Shake Loose” skims over some eras and dwells on others. Projections designed by Robbie Hayes show images of famous performers — shots of Sammy Davis Jr. as a toddler in vaudeville; jazz greats; 1960s crossover stars. But the photos are most effective when they deal in history.
The faces and funerals of Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy have a heavy impact. A 1968 video of author James Baldwin on the “Dick Cavett Show,” explaining why he doubts that the American Dream applies to everyone, sounds shockingly current.
Arrayed in sparkly party outfits for the women and sharp vests or jackets for the men (the costumes by Janine Sunday evolve through the show), the cast members go through their paces on a Las Vegas-style stage, albeit miniaturized, by scenic designers Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan, with the band behind them.
Led by conductor-pianist Knowles, the quintet includes Yusef Chisholm on bass, Greg Holloway on drums, Grant Langford on saxophone, and Alvin Trask on trumpet.
After intermission, “Shake Loose” loses a bit of momentum. A section titled “Icons” dwells on the public masks and private pain of celebrity drug addiction. The mood then shifts to sex in “After Midnight Moods,” when White gets her “Barely Breathing” turn, Williams croons “Just Climb in My Bed” and LaMarr pleads for sex in “Sanctify Me.”
While “Shake Loose” may stray from the historic path Jones maps out at the start, it never loses track of its emotional impact, its humor or its musical polish — three ingredients for a fine night out.
Shake Loose: A Musical Night of Blues, Moods & Icons Music and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II, William Hubbard and William Knowles. Directed and choreographed by Thomas W. Jones II. Musical direction, William Knowles. Co-music director, William Hubbard. Lighting design, Alexander Keen; sound, Gordon Nimmo-Smith. About 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission. At MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria, through March 6. Tickets: $55-$60. 703-548-9044. metrostage.org.