Wayne Harrel

‘Just This One’ review: staging the blues

Jukebox musical based on the life of legendary Portland bluesman Paul deLay electrifies Fertile Ground festival

At the Fertile Ground Festival performance of Just This One, a jukebox musical based on the eventful life of late Portland bluesman Paul deLay, I went to a play and a great blues concert broke out.

I never got to hear deLay, who died in his native Portland in 2007, live. Having devoted way too many college nights to intense study of great local and touring blues masters at one of the nation’s great blues clubs, Antones, I was too snobby (not to mention too busy covering other music after moving here) to imagine that Oregon could produce great blues comparable to what I’d so often heard in Texas, except for maybe Robert Cray. By the time I realized my error, a year after moving to Portland, deLay was gone, stolen by leukemia at age 55

Saeeda Wright, Lisa Mann, LaRhonda Steele, Ben Rice in ‘Just This One.’

So the fact that even a deLay newbie like me so enjoyed Wayne Harrel’s new musical shows that his songs and story (even as fictionalized here) are plenty compelling for any blues lover — not just those trying to relive deLay’s glory days performing at the Fat Little Rooster.

That’s because this show wisely keeps the spotlight on deLay’s masterfully crafted, often wryly humorous music, not the characteristically contrived story frame, and enlists a stage full of powerful performers to deliver it. Even though the show, ably directed by Judy Straalsund, happened in the backroom of a southeast Portland piano store, Michelle’s Piano Company, if I closed my eyes, I could imagine I was back at Antone’s, minus the clouds of cigarette smoke.

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NWTW eases into company status in stages

The Workshop's "Noisemaker" and "Jaffa Gate" reveal a company building and playing the long game

Northwest Theatre Workshop is playing the long game.

For Fertile Ground 2015, the Cantilever Project presented a staged reading of four plays at Blackfish Gallery:  NWTW founder Cigi Guerin’s Noisemaker, Wayne Harrel’s since-retitled Jaffa Gate, George Taylor’s Renaissance, and Vivien Lyon’s Nobody’s Business. I reviewed them, noting that Jaffa Gate‘s original name (a Latin word that choir nerds like me may know) actually gave away Harrel’s ending before the show even began! I didn’t expect him to necessarily even read, let alone take, that note, but apparently he did as NWTW continued to refine two of the Cantilever scripts, Guerin’s and Harrel’s, for a full staging.

Now, two years later, Jaffa Gate and Noisemaker are blazing through a three-week world premiere run, packing in seven more performances in rotation at Shaking The Tree’s theater space between now and Saturday, partnering with nearby businesses to offer discounts and even some free tickets. At his curtain speeches, Harrel admits that NWTW are eager to share their progress toward establishing a full-fledged theater company. They want an audience. They want reviews. Buoyed by a cast and crew who already give a lot to our theater community (one is PATA’s president, and most have a long list of small local companies they’ve worked with), these shows are finishing their incubation in the spotlight. So how far along are they?

Jaffa Gate

Jaffa Gate could be summarized as a theatrical overview of the overlaps in the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Scholars are already aware that these religions’ sacred texts may as well have been written on triplicate carbon forms, but this narrative makes that all the more explicit—sometimes even deploying an echo effect as three characters utter their faiths’ variations of the same word. For instance, when Christian character Oliver Dodd (Johnny Rice) refers to “David,” his cohorts, the Turkish Muslim Rachma Chol (Dré Slaman) and the Dutch Jewish Miriam Abravanel (Sofia May-Cuxim) immediately mutter their faiths’ variations, respectively “Davud” and “DavEED.” This “you say tomato” religious repartee shapes the course of events through a tense situation, as these three have been captured at the border of the titular Jaffa Gate by Circassian—aka, Black Sea Russian—mercenary tribal leader Nash Abu Ghosh (Andy Haftkowycz).

Dré Slaman spins a tale in “Jaffa Gate.” Photo: Northwest Theatre Workshop

Talk about ambitious! Between triple research of world religions and regional strife and the proposition of life-or-death stakes, Harrel’s script goes wide. Hence, to hold together, its execution must be incredibly tight. On opening week at least, it was still getting there.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Play it, Sam

On the 88th day the pianos will play, all over town. Plus: The Japanese Garden reopens, Brett Campbell's music tips, new theater & dance

Wednesday, in case you haven’t been counting, will be the 88th day of 2017.

A piano, as you probably know, has 88 keys.

And that seems like an excellent excuse to throw a big piano party, which is exactly what Portland Piano International is doing with its minimalistically named Piano Day. Portland’s Piano Day, PPI declares, is the first in the United States. The celebration first struck a chord in Germany two years ago when pianist Nils Frahm proclaimed March 29 as Piano Day, and it’s crescendoed rapidly to Japan, Slovenia, Australia, the Netherlands, Israel, Canada, France, and elsewhere.

Dooley Wilson at the keyboard, playing “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 Warner Bros. movie “Casablanca.”

So what’s happening? Piano playing. Lots of it, by lots of pianists (no, not Francis Scott Key or Alicia Keys), in lots of styles, from noon to 10 p.m. in four locations: Portland City Hall downtown, All Classical Portland radio headquarters in the Portland Opera building at the east end of the Tilikum Crossing bridge, Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland, and TriMet’s Oregon Zoo MAX Station. Listening’s free, but the pianists are also taking donations for PPI and educational programs, and a little payback is a good thing. Play it, Sam.

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