In 1940s Baltimore, a young Jewish woman who wrote songs in search of an audience crossed paths with a group of young black men in search of a song. The rest is rock ‘n’ roll history, now brought to life again on a Portland stage.
Deborah Chessler’s collaborative work with The Orioles’s Sonny Til is the metaphorical “harmony” in Soul Harmony, the Stumptown Stages production currently running at the Brunish Theatre. Together, the odd couple pioneered a rhythm and blues sound that became the precursor of rock-n-roll—in the process, producing “Too Soon To Know,” one of the most enduring ballads of R&B history.
That song was what led renowned rock critic Greil Marcus to make contact with its author Chessler for his essay The Deborah Chessler Story, published in 1997’s The Dustbin of History. Through Marcus, Portlander Alan Berg also found his way to the woman herself, interviewing her several times before her death in 2012.
Berg’s original production Soul Harmony—with Janet Mouser and Michael Allen Harrison completing the artistic team behind its creation—is the result of these connections. The musical is a tribute to Chessler, and as such is unstintingly loyal to her recounting of events, peppered with the kind of anecdotal details—she wrote “Too Soon To Know” on a roll of toilet paper—that also colored Marcus’s essay.
It's a fascinating story, worth telling, yet this kind of true-to-life fidelity rarely achieves the sort of clear narrative arc that makes for a satisfying play. Berg, it seems, has ultimately chosen loyalty to his subject's recollected life over cohesive storytelling; one can only imagine the kind of rich material he gleaned from his weekly interviews with Chessler, but the distillation of all that detail into a compelling musical package is where Soul Harmony struggles.
There are new musical numbers to help tell the story, to varying degrees of success. But in the end, the music of The Orioles is what shines in this three-hour show: “Crying in the Chapel,” “I Cover The Waterfront,” “Tell Me So”—Soul Harmony serves to remind us of the resonance of these R&B classics.
The fact that Sunny Til is played by his own grandson, the velvet-toned De’Sean Dooley, packs an extra emotional punch. It also points up the circular nature of America’s racist history: watching a young black man talk about his mistreatment at the hands of police officers is particularly bleak viewing following recent events in this country.
Given this thematic thrust—Soul Harmony foregrounds the overt racism of 1940s and ‘50s America—it makes for a disappointing addendum to highlight the homogenous audience in attendance the night I saw the show. It’s some strange irony to see a world premiere about the birth of R&B—the black music that crossed the racial barrier and found an audience in America’s white middle class youth—witnessed here only by a white-haired, white-skinned audience.
The explosion of R&B in early 1950s America, in which The Orioles played a key role, marked a major change in the country’s musical landscape. The sad takeaway from Soul Harmony, though, is how much has stayed the same.
Soul Harmony runs at the Brunish Theatre through May 7