So you’ve grown too old to hit the dance floor, or maybe you just miss the way music used to sound. There’s still a place for you. It’s called the theater.
So does tissue-thin dialogue illustrating the struggle, like “When were you going to tell me?” and “How could you let this happen?” In telling the true story as quickly as possible so the show can fit in a lot of songs, Matthew Benjamin writes scenes that could fit on index cards. How can the scrappy founders afford to get started? Can they avoid getting ripped off by the big record companies? By the end of Act 1, as Otis Redding (Ricky Fante) sings “Try a Little Tenderness,” the breathless cliffhanger is that this brave but naive little studio is on the verge. Of. Losing. Everything.
What “Soul” gets right is what was also nailed three years ago by the troupe’s “Marley” (another premiere, also shepherded and directed by recently departed artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah): The music sounds right. The horns are tight. The rhythm section is solid. The singers are capable, and a notable presence in the cast as Wilson Pickett (“In the Midnight Hour”) and Johnnie Taylor (“Who’s Making Love”) is the real Taylor’s son, Jon Harrison Taylor.
The costumes evolve from pencil pants to late-1960s flares and the platform shoes and jumbo furs Isaac Hayes (Boise Holmes) wore during his “Shaft” period. It’s well-produced and energetically staged, as Kwei-Armah keeps the aisles busy and even puts the irrepressible Rufus Thomas (jubilantly played by Harrison White) in the balcony for a session of the Funky Chicken. “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’” take you home. No surprises.
Hanging on to old music is what Laura Eason explores in her Chicago barroom drama “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now,” in which the owner, Hank, growls that club DJs are about to ruin live music. It’s 1992, and the walls of the Keegan Theatre set are plastered with posters of vintage rock acts that played his legendary dive.
Director Brandon McCoy creates a scruffy mood and Eason pulls some good lines from these die-hards, especially Hank’s lament: “I never thought pop would be alternative, but now that alternative is mainstream . . . .” Still, his zealous romantic speeches about the power of live rock get tedious, even if you’re on his side, and Chris Stezin gets stuck delivering a grunting, grimacing performance. Ryan Sellers is more interesting as the young, respectful DJ whose arguments aren’t half bad.
Standing between these macho figures is Hank’s daughter, a dyed-in-the-music young woman who was raised in the bar (persuasively played by Jessie Power). Like a jukebox full of hits you’ve heard for decades, you can see exactly where that’s going to lead.
Soul: The Stax Musical Book by Matthew Benjamin. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Choreography, Chase Brock; music supervision and musical director, Rahn Coleman; scenic and co-projection designer, David Gallo; costumes, Dede Ayite; lights, Mike Baldassari; co-projection designer, Alex Basco Koch; sound design, Shane Rettig and Charles Coes. About two hours. Through June 10 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. $20-$79. 410-332-0033 or centerstage.org.
The Undeniable Sound of Right Now by Laura Eason. Directed by Brandon McCoy. Set, Matthew J. Keenan; lights, Katie McCreary; costumes, Alison Samantha Johnson; sound design, Veronica J. Lancaster. About two hours. Through May 27 at Keegan Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. $45. 202-265-3767 or keegantheatre.com.