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Theater Review : "Super Freak: The Rick James Story" @ National Theater

On the evening of Friday, April 5th, the National Theater in Washington, D.C., presented the latest production from esteemed playwright Je'Caryous Johnson, entitled "Super Freak: The Rick James Story". Co-authoring and directing the play alongside Johnson was J. Kyle Manzay. The production is derived from the books "Glow" and "Memories of A Super Freak."

Before he became a quotable Dave Chapelle episode, Rick James had an awe-inspiring music career. Johnson and Manzay begin the play in Buffalo, where we meet young James (Kobe Brown), the apple of his mother's (Chontelle Moore) eye. The audience learns about James's early life, which includes law trouble, a stint in the military, and eventually makes his way to Canada, where he forms his first band, "The Mynah Birds," which includes future Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Neil Young (Jonah Harmon).

Using the unknown Brown as the young Rick James was a good choice as it allowed me to tap into his character's journey while trying to break into the music industry. Music legend Stokley assumes the role of Rick James at the end of the first with a soul-sitting performance of "You and I." The second half of "Super Freak" finds James in his total Punk Funk persona. Vocally, Stokley brings his A-game to James's hits such as "Give It to Me Baby" and "Mary Jane" and a soul-sitting duet of "Fire & Desire" with Eleni Hanson, who portrays Teena Marie. In terms of acting, Stokley also expects what one would provide in a jukebox musical while avoiding parody,

The play's allusions to notable musicians and their contributions to music history will

undoubtedly appeal to music historians. Among the mentioned figures are Berry Gordy, a music icon, and his Motown legends, including Ashford & Simpson, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Lionel Richie. Pop culture enthusiasts, too, will find Jeffrey May Hyche's brief cameo as M.C. Hammer and Charlie Murphy amusing.

Jonah Harmon's portrayal of Prince was engrossing. It stood out for its energy despite the actor's dissimilarity to the Purple One in appearance. Overall, the play was enjoyable, save for a few minor grievances. Fans of James Brown may take issue with chronologically inaccurate dates, and the play's nearly three-hour duration may be deemed lengthy.

Nevertheless, with solid lead performances, a funky soundtrack, and a respectable tribute to a funk legend, "Super Freak: The Rick James Story" will tide fans over until we get an appropriate Rick James miniseries.

Final Grade: B+

"Super Freak: The Rick James Story" is touring across the country now. Check Ticketmaster for local listings.

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