Africa & Plumbridge
nytheatre.com review by Anthony Pennino
August 15, 2004
The musical Africa & Plumbridge is inspired by the life of its co-composer and co-lyricist Sue Carey. Africa, a black orphan, returns to the St. Agnes Orphanage, where she meets Sharon who eventually decides to adopt her.
The music for this show is terrific; Carey is joined by collaborators Karena Mendoza and Mark Janas. The upbeat score follows in the footsteps of other recent musicals that take inspiration from contemporary popular music such as rock, soul, r&b, and gospel.
The performances, for the most part, are excellent. The energetic and talented young cast keeps the audience engaged. Janeece Aisha Freeman is one of the standout performers in this year’s Fringe. As Africa, Freeman is always compelling. She invests every moment with power and depth of feeling. With her angelic voice, Freeman will be a Broadway star soon.
Freeman is ably supported by Liz McConahay as Sharon, Eric Anthony as Richie, and Monique Whittington in multiple roles.
The book by Jim Brochu, however, does not match the inspiration provided by the music. Much of the dialogue is given over to exposition. No compelling reason is provided for why everyone else on stage cares so much about Africa when they have only known her for five minutes. Africa, who should have most of the action, has to sit around for long stretches of time while others lecture her. The main conflict between Africa and Sharon—over a postponed promise—feels hollow. A villainous attorney (Jim Meade) has a ludicrous subplot about embezzling money from the orphanage; his character is as much a cliche as the moustache-twisting landlords from the silent movie era. And, finally, the characters of Sharon and Dr. Spense (Tim Ewing) are such desperately good, saintly, upper-middle-class white figures that they come across more as advertisements for LBJ’s Great Society than complex characters in a theatrical piece in 2004. The musical would be improved a great deal if these two characters were more flawed, more complicated, and more given to the uglier side of human emotions. But because they are so good, Africa & Plumbridge runs the risk of coming across as patronizing.
Nevertheless, the music and the star performances are worth the price of admission. And the story idea itself—Oliver! for the 21st century—has a great deal of appeal. With a few rewrites, the book may stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the other elements of this fine show.