By Sandi Durell
Resounding with spirit and vitality, Cross That River tells the tale of a runaway slave in the 1860s who had a dream. . . a dream of freedom. With book by Allan and Pat Harris, and music and lyrics by Allan Harris, this concert version at 59e59 Theaters is an expression of hope of a young black man called Blue, with a penchant for horses, who realizes he can buy his freedom and escapes the McLaughlin Plantation in Louisiana, heading for Texas to become one of America’s first black cowboys.
Raised by a loving Mama Lila (Maya Azucena), Blue’s story is told in exquisite musical detail when, as a boy (young Blue played by Jeffrey Lewis), makes his getaway – “I’m Going to Soar” – while having a secret affair with the plantation owner’s daughter Courtney (Carolyn Leonhart playing additional roles) who provides him with the horse. It’s risky business if he’s caught but says goodbye to Mama, giving Courtney one last kiss to “Cross That River” making his way West.
Each song signifies one step forward to reach his dream, winding up in “Circle T” on his way to Abilene roping Longhorns and herding cattle where he meets the grubby, cussin’ “Mule Skinner,” who taught Blue lessons of hurt and lost love.
The exceptional musicians include Alan Grubner on violin, Miki Hayama on keyboard, Seth Johnson on guitar, Jay White on bass and vocals, and an outstanding Shirazette Tinnin on drums and percussion.
Maya Azucena also takes on the role of Annie, an abused mail order bride, the story told in detail in “Mail Order Woman” by the stunning voiced, emotionally charged Azucena, who also plays a Saloon Girl and Native American and a surprise role at the conclusion. The smoky, velvet voiced Allan Harris plays the role of the grown up Blue, as well as narrator (also playing guitar).
Strong, memorable “Welcome to Diamond Jims” (a saloon) opens Act II as Blue makes his way across Kansas. Mistreated Annie sings “It’s Not Easy to be Invisible” a sorrowful reveal of the abusive pain she suffers at the hand of the man who she married.
The story moves back and forth in time, more ex-slaves & soldiers making their way to freedom, and finally respite after many years when Blue has realized his hopes and dreams, the show concluding with a tearful anthem “I Do Believe” . . . America’s my home.
The tale comes to rest in a place of optimism for a better world for all.
This is an extraordinary journey for Allan Harris having presented this at NYMF back in 2009 and now, after many rewrites and a new cast, brings this story of guts and blood and a Black West to new heights with a mix of jazz, blues, country and R & B tunes. It’s directed by Regge Life. From my perspective, it’s a story that needs telling and perhaps this concert will come to fruition in a fully staged production sooner than later.
Meantime, you have the entire month of December through December 31 to see Cross That River which I highly recommend.
Tickets 212 279-4200 (www.59e59.org ) Run Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes