For musical theater lovers intrigued by the idea of a lively 90-minute pastiche of rock, soul, and ballad paired with an interesting premise involving Shakespeare and social justice, Macbeth in Stride is the show for you.
With an onstage band and performance at the heart of the production, this is all about clapping along, a goodly portion of expository — some of it sung — and participation as required.
For those with a shorter attention span, fear not: there are whiffs of live-concert crowd-rousing, keening gospel gatherings, and even intimate evenings in a piano bar.
The question is, other than being very entertaining, does Macbeth in Stride actually have something to say?
Maybe, perhaps, sort of.
The concept of writer-performer Whitney White is certainly compelling: it starts with a personable and inclusive invitation to consider with new eyes the way Shakespeare writes his female characters, Lady Macbeth in particular (called Woman here).
White begins by asking, who was she really? Her answer arrives through the lens of a Black woman laying claim to their world and their power.
This is an intriguing premise, but anyone who knows the play will be stumped by a threshold question: why choose a character who is murderously power-mad to the point of driving herself insane? Despite a fair amount of spoken and sung angst, the answer to the question never quite surfaces, and White’s attempts to fill in the gaps never convinces.
More to the point, White’s Lady Macbeth presents as too smart, capable, and 21st-century-centered to see murder as her way to power.
When even the three witches query her ruthlessness, it’s time to make the message clear, but it still never quite adds up. If White is saying that Black women can — or are forced to — be their own worst enemies, this isn’t made fully clear.
All that said, the show is a clever adaptation in the way Shakespeare — a phrase here, a snippet of soliloquy there — is woven into the piece and given creative context among White’s ideas.
In fact, the Shakespeare delivered by White and Charlie Thurston as Man (or Macbeth), bring some of the evening’s best moments, with both seeming wholly capable of carrying the original play in its entirety.
Thurston, in particular, channels a surprising amount of his character’s mindset in between the raucous musical numbers, which is no small feat. He is also a talented singer, with a clear and pleasing tone that works well in the quieter nods to the retro balladeering vaguely reminiscent of ’70s groups like Bread.
As Woman, White sparkles with charisma and shows she can sing with power, but also a quite beautiful delicacy. This is a character who often narrates herself and White delivers her contemplations with superb confidence and pacing.
At times, she brings the kind of subversive energy suggestive of ’60s protest performance or even Beat Generation poetry — all tantalizing tastes of the direction this piece might have taken had it not striven to be an unadulterated crowd-pleaser.
Carrying much of the mood, joy, and atmosphere are the three witches, who own the space and their songs with a perfect blend of warmth and mystery. As First Witch, Stacey Sargeant is the commanding presence she needs to be, bringing exceptional character to her commentary and velvety-rich singing.
As Second Witch, Ximone Rose has a pleasing edge that delivers some of the frisson the witches need; she looks like she really will cast a death spell if pushed and sings with an equally bold power.
Last but definitely not least, Chelsea Lee Williams gives her Third Witch her own completely unique vibe, a captivating mellow grace complementing a sultry voice. Even if you run screaming from musical theater, you will want to hear these women when they harmonize.
Macbeth in Stride (★★★☆☆) runs through Oct. 29 at the Shakespeare’s Klein Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Ticket are limited for the remaining shows. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
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