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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, May 8, 2019 4 months ago

Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe keeps heart of soul music alive at Ed Smith

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It takes a big team to put on WBTT's upcoming ’70s Soul Party performance at Ed Smith Stadium.
by: Niki Kottmann Managing Editor of Arts and Entertainment

The concept of a day at the ballpark is such a quintessentially American experience — throw on your favorite cap, grab a greasy hot dog and enjoy America’s favorite pastime. But what if you could enjoy a completely different kind of pastime in the same setting?

Five years ago, the Baltimore Orioles reached out to Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe to create such an experience. It wasn’t an opportune time for WBTT then, but this season the partnership is finally in place to produce WBTT’s first ’70s Soul Party, a performance of the popular WBTT Soul Crooners at Ed Smith Stadium.

“(This year) we happened to be in a place where we could say ‘yes,’ and we’re very excited about the opportunity,” says Founder and Artistic Director Nate Jacobs. “I think it’ll expose us to a whole new audience.”

David Rovine, vice president of Orioles-Sarasota says he’s confident this opportunity can do just that, and he adds that it’s beneficial for both sides of the partnership.

“It demonstrates that the Orioles have a commitment to making the stadium be a place for entertainment all year round,” Rovine says. “And they (WBTT) typically play to a smaller audience, so it’s very exciting to play to 3,000 people.”

STEP ONE: PRODUCTION

Once the production was booked, the first question was what the theater group should perform. As part of the Orioles’ Art in the Ballpark series offering accessible, family-friendly arts events, it had to be something that would appeal to the masses.

Jacobs says it was fairly easy to pick when he thought of WBTT’s most popular show, which happens to be celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Music Director James “Jay” Dodge II, Artistic Director and Founder Nate Jacobs and performer Michael Mendez laugh while practicing backstage at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. Photo by Niki Kottmann

The Soul Crooners is a five-man ensemble — backed by a five-piece band — dedicated to celebrating 1970s soul music by male rhythm and blues singers. It was conceived and adapted by Jacobs, and it’s so loved that it’s been performed everywhere from the Straz Center in Tampa and the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach to the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., and various cities in Germany.

“Crooners has become its own entity within our world,” Jacobs says.

Audiences will hear a blending of the first and second iterations of the Soul Crooners’ show, which features songs by legends such as Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, etc.

“It’s the kind of show that gets people on their feet dancing,” says Wardrobe Manager Adrienne Pitts. 

That’s why WBTT is calling it the ’70s Soul Party. It’s a performance and rowdy musical celebration all in one. 

“That’s kind of our signature here in Sarasota, a good time, so we didn’t want to be any different with this event,” Jacobs says.

Music Director James “Jay” Dodge II has full faith the group will rock Ed Smith, but he notes that the performers must adjust to singing in a venue that’s significantly larger than WBTT’s Orange Avenue theater.

Leon S. Pitts II, a founding member of WBTT, performs in a Soul Crooners show at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s 170-seat theater. Courtesy photo

“People like that our house is intimate,” Dodge says. “They (Soul Crooners) can reach out and touch the audience and serenade women — they won’t be able to do that … but they’ll find a way out there somehow (laughs).”

Jacobs adds with a chuckle that he expects many women to attend because they seem particularly fond of the show — so much so that some have thrown certain undergarments onto the stage.

For this new hybrid Soul Crooners show, the team decided to include Cedric Soul Child, a sort of narrator-like character who walks around and keeps the show going ike Don Cornelius from “Soul Train,” what Jacobs calls the “‘American Bandstand’ for black people.” 

“Most people who know ‘Soul Train’ know there was a connectedness that could make the artists relatable to the world,” he says, which he largely credits Don Cornelius for fostering.

STEP TWO: PROGRAM

When choosing the set list, the WBTT team realized adjustments needed to be made to the traditional Soul Crooners show format. Slower ballads were not going to fit the ambiance of a big production with a party vibe at a 3,000-seat ballpark.

“We really are keeping it moving and shaking,” Jacobs says. “(Whereas) Sometimes in the real show we come down for 10, 12 minutes with some slow, mellow stuff.”

Band members Willie "TFox" Thompson, Jamar Camp, James "Jay" Dodge II, Todd Bellamy and Etienne "EJ" Porter — Photo by Sorcha Augustine

Dodge says that by replacing several such “mellow” songs in the old lineup with high-energy hits, the production team hopes to get audience members out of their seats.

Both shows — “Crooners 1” and “Crooners 2” — are broken up into two acts, so they had four acts of music to play with when narrowing the list down to slightly less than two hours of music. Jacobs and Dodge agree it wasn’t an easy process because they had so much to work with, but they’re pleased with the result —a marriage of the two Soul Crooners shows.

“Because we decided to keep things popping and moving it’s more about — without killing the integrity of either one of the shows — being strategic in picking the numbers that keep the show exciting,” Jacobs says. “I wanted to be very particular about this show because it’s our first time doing this event — we wanted to leave an impression on the audience.”

Soul Crooners perform at smaller engagements throughout every season, but the group hasn’t performed a whole production together since last summer (a touring engagement in West Palm Beach). Jacobs says it’s going to take some work to get the show back on its feet, but he has no doubt it’ll come together. 

“We want the same vitality, the same spirit,” Jacobs says. “That fabric of the show — we want it how that was the last time it was on the stage.”

STEP THREE: COSTUMES

The performers have to sound good, but Pitts notes that it’s not a show unless they look good, too. She’s excited for audiences to see the group’s brand-new costumes, which she says gives the men a slick, handsome look. 

“When you look good you feel good, and when they look good it’s like a whole new person … their performance changes completely,” she says. “They haven’t seen the new costumes yet, and they’re looking forward to it.”

Soul Crooners performer Michael Mendez tries on a jacket with the help of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe Wardrobe Manager Adrienne Pitts. Photo by Niki Kottmann

She credits Jacobs for giving her the big-picture vision of what he wants, but Pitts is the one who makes it happen. The first step in the costuming process is a meeting with the two of them so they both understand that vision, and then Pitts heads off to do research. 

“He’s great about conveying that to me,” she says. “He’s a visionary and he allows me to have creative freedom as well.”

Typically WBTT doesn’t create costumes from scratch, she says, but after a great deal of online shopping, outfits that come in are then modified to make them more breathable and easy to perform in.

For this show, Pitts says she was actually searching for costumes for a different WBTT production when she stumbled upon the perfect fit for the Soul Crooners. Fate was on her side.

Soul Crooners artists Sheldon Rhoden, Charles Manning, Nate Jacobs, Leon S. Pitts II and Michael Mendez — Courtesy photo

Perhaps the most important step of the costuming process is at the very end, Pitts says, because at the tech rehearsal just a few days before the production the performers get to rehearse the whole show in their costumes for the first time. If the artists can’t sing or dance in their outfits, adjustments need to be made accordingly — and fast.

But Pitts is always on it.

“She’s smart and very resourceful and she does not stop until the job is done,” Jacobs says. “Not until she’s satisfied the vision. She’s an asset to beautifying our performers.”

STEP FOUR: FINE TUNE

As for the biggest challenge, Dodge says it’s getting everyone in the same place to rehearse. Most of these musicians and vocalists don’t work for WBTT full time, so there are several schedules that need to be worked around.

But when they finally do get together, the result is a unique synergy. Jacobs agrees.

“It’s a true brotherhood,” Jacobs says. “We’re singing some of the most phenomenal music ever written and we get to sing it together. It unifies us from the first day of rehearsal to hitting the stage.”

I'm the Managing Editor of Arts & Entertainment here, which means I write, edit and share stories about our multifaceted A&E scene in Sarasota. I graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Journalism and a French minor. Reach me at 941-366-3468 ext. 356

See All Articles by Niki

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