Prove It On Me
Stella Adler Theatre
Interracial lesbian love in pre-Depression Harlem? Hardly a commercial sounding subject for a new musical, is it? If the theme of Dee Jae Cox’ Prove It On Me, now world premiering at the Stella Adler, sounds more like something printed diagonally in bright red dripping letters on the tattered cardstock cover of an old dime novel, that’s often what it’s like watching it, too. As the mildly sordid and sometimes cleverly convoluted plot unfolds in Cox’ urban melodrama, you can almost smell the mustiness in the pages of some worn paperback from the 60s sitting on a back shelf in a dingy used bookstore. And oddly, that’s a major asset to the future success of this project.
Beyond everything Prove It On Me has going for it, however, and with huge kudos to the show’s designers at the top of the list, in its present early stage it simply isn’t quite ready to be making its public debut. Most of the supporting performances are still unsure and spotty; the flow of the story is continuously interrupted by backstage banging during the play’s interminably long and clunky set changes (despite choreographer Ameenah Kaplan trying to make them into dances); and details such as a small radio conspicuously missing a cord turning on Twilight Zone-style without needing to be plugged in anywhere a few decades before transistor radios were invented, need urgent attention.
Next, what Cox needs to do is go back and simplify a lot of her gooier passages of conversation, particularly lines given to the beautifully-voiced Aynsley Bubbico as insistently hot-to-trot ultra-white flapper-babe Lindsey Dalton, who has the difficult acting task of staying honest and real while putting her arms around her uncomfortable romantic target (Sweet Baby J’ai as a strikingly sexy middleaged Harlem speakeasy songstress named Georgia Brooks), aggressively coming at her from behind and cooing things into her ear such as: “Let’s crawl into the belly of the night and let the sunlight kiss us awake” five minutes after they’ve first met. Oy.
The obviously talented Bubbico’s performance is also in need of director Kelly Ann Ford’s immediate consideration before some bad habits get etched in stone, like bringing some of the character’s later vulnerability into her first scenes as well. Although Lindsey is a spoiled Manhattan rich daddy’s girl in pursuit of “forbidden” romance with the cautious and world-weary black chanteuse—despite her mega-Trump of a father’s support of the Klan—as here presented, the kid is just so forward and lecherously horny it’s hard to later buy that the everlasting love she professes for Georgia is genuine.
This is not to say Prove It On Me doesn’t honestly, even as presented here, have a lot going for it, with Lisa D. Katz’ moody lighting, Cricket Myers’ precision sound design and, especially, Sharell Martin’s wonderfully shimmering and perfectly period-accented costuming enhancing a clever set design by Lisa Lechuga which, in truth, also suffers from rather surprisingly amateurish and arbitrary construction.
Still, beyond anything else Prove It On Me and its pulp-fiction storyline has to offer, there’s one distinctive reason for seeing it in its present state regardless of its highly correctible flaws: the dynamic, stylish, sophisticated and infectiously jazzy blues score contributed to the piece by Michele Weiss, truly the best part of the entire production. And as Weiss’ compositions are interpreted by the multi-gifted Baby J’ai, who all but channels Nina Simone and Esther Phillips in her memorable vocals, there’s no doubt what Prove It On Me needs is more Weiss and less dialogue such as “Money just like paper—get blown away in the wind.” If about 25% of Cox’ silly soap opera-y dialogue got blown away with it, these folks would have something very special here indeed.
In the meantime, how ‘bout an engagement at the Gardenia or some other local struggling supperclub in the near future with Baby J’ai doing an evening of Michele Weiss tunes — while Cox works on her next hopefully considerably simplified draft for the promising but unfinished Prove It On Me?
Prove It On Me plays through Mar. 2 at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; for tickets, call 323.960.7721. For more information, visit www.stellaadler-la.com