By GAIL CHOOCHAN THE FREE LANCE-STAR
What’s a family gathering without a side of drama?
Onstage at Ford’s Theater, “Grace” is a heartwarming and oftentimes hilarious slice-of-life story about a family who has come together to memorialize their beloved matriarch.
This world-première musical, by DC composer Nolan Williams Jr. and Nikkole Salter, tells the story through a rich tapestry of sounds—everything from classical and jazz to R&B and soul to gospel—all wonderfully carried out by the orchestra led by conductor Paul Byssainthe Jr.
Family dynamics are explored as this eclectic group of cousins—along with their great-aunt Miss Minnie—prepare a memorial service for their Gran’Me, who ran the long-running Minton’s Place. Now, this family restaurant’s future rests in the hands of Ruthie, who’s been secretly struggling to keep the business afloat in this changing Philly neighborhood of juice bars, coffee shops and yoga studios.
While it is a story about a family and legacy, it is also a celebration of African American culinary pioneers and traditions (there’s a song dedicated to them, “Bogle, Augustin, Prosser, Dorsey, Jones & Minton,” and another one about black- eye peas).
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Jason Ardizzone–West has created a colorful and inviting stage design, dominated by a mural featuring historical figures. “Grace” mainly takes place in the backyard of Minton’s Place, which is bustling with activity as family members pop in and out of doors and up and down the stairs ahead of the service. Heaping trays of food are carried out to the table, changes need to be made to the program, and then there’s a last-minute grocery run for turkey necks. Through all this hustle-and-bustle and mourning, long-simmering grievances, misunderstandings and secrets come to light.
A fabulous cast of performers has been assembled for this show, directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming. The 95-minute musical allows every one of them the chance to showcase their vocal talents. However, some shine just a bit brighter than others.
“Grace” is jam-packed with musical numbers, but the biggest treats are Ruthie’s deeply affecting “Again?” and the uproariously brilliant “The Gospel Bird (This Chicken Died).” These two songs could not be further apart.
In Ruthie’s heart-heavy ballad, Nova Y. Payton proves why she’s one of the best singers in the DC theater scene, and during last Saturday’s matinee, the crowd was more than eager to rise from their seats and shower her in cheers and applause. And “The Gospel Bird” is just pure fun as Arica Jackson leads the cast and a clapping audience in an enthusiastic song-and-dance during meal time. Haley may be feeling bitter about being forgotten on the Minton mural plaque, but Jackson’s performance is one to remember. Her singing “This chicken died so I could live” may inspire you to bust out into song the next time you hold a piece of chicken.
Other standout performances include Raquel Jennings as the outspoken “Afro-boho-chic” cousin Jacqui, Rayshun LaMarr as the social media-savvy DJ Joshua who had an especially sweet bond with Grand’Me, and Virginia Ann Woodruff as the razor-sharp great -aunt Miss Minnie.
While the musical could use some tweaking in its storytelling, instead of serving up song after song, it’s refreshing to see a completely new musical production nowadays, and “Grace”—a feel-good story about food and family—hits the spot.