Talk of Broadway surrounds The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea, an African retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fable. If the buzz refers to the cast, one of the finest ever assembled at the San Diego Rep, or to Jennifer Brawn Gittings’s gold-flecked, Afrocentric costumes, then, yes, they merit an extended stay at the Big Hotel. But Princess is a house divided: an amazing group of performers grafted, by cutesy directorial touches, onto an aimless book and a score with intermittent hits and misses.
The singers are better than the songs. Throughout the two-and-a-half-hour show, the performers appear held back. They do ensemble duties, yielding focus, injecting energy. Then from nowhere, and often unmotivated, one will step out and dazzle. P.L. Brown, a giant with a voice, it would seem, octaves below bass, sings “Harrumph!” — a modest ditty — as if resonating from the center of a pyramid. Brown takes his bow, steps back, and disappears, pretty much, for the rest of the evening.
TON3X, who plays the Prince’s pal Rolin, handles second-fiddle duties for the first 20 songs and then threatens to dismantle vast portions of the Gaslamp Quarter with “Partay.” At the end of the rocking, penultimate number (which should be the show’s finale), TON3X holds a note, then spirals upward with three dazzling vocal curlicues, and the crowd goes nuts. Then he loops on three more: higher, faster. It’s the musical equivalent of a double helix — a riff, needless to say, never heard before in the Lyceum, and you wonder, where’s this guy been all evening?
It’s that kind of show. The talent is either underutilized — Ken Prymus, as King Kemo, can step to the head of that class — or often at odds with the text. Tony Award–winner Lillias White plays Queen Zauba. The character, as directed, is a one-note, jealous control freak demanding her progeny have the bluest blood. In act 2, the lights dim and White sings “My Only Son” with such oceanic feeling and wisdom, she breaks through the confines of the musical. Problem is, nothing in Queen Zauba’s shallow character prepared White for such an elevated — nay, epic rendition.
The story’s set in the African kingdoms of Kheba and Torel. Sheltered Princess Quelie of Kheba wants to take charge of her life. How? Compete in Torel’s annual “challenge dance.” But princesses just don’t do that. So she and Hena, her “lonely orphaned cousin,” sneak away. Meanwhile, back in Torel, Prince Gallant has a scientific bent (even cured his asthma) and can’t dance a lick. He’s more worried about a strange blue light looming over his kingdom than finding a mate. Quelie bumps into Gallant, and zing go the strings. Now she must pass the wedding test — detecting a black-eyed pea through 20 mattresses — even though she’s allergic to said legume.
That sketch promises at least four boffo scenes: the challenge dance, the mattress test, the blue light puzzle, the marriage. Yet the first three happen almost behind-the-scenes, and the marriage is a comedown after TON3X just belted “Partay.” The script’s consistently anticlimactic: it raises expectations — the first image “Princess and the Pea” conjures up is a tall, preferably wobbly stack of mattresses, no? — then shoots them down.
The production, especially the 85-minute first act, is herky-jerky; scenes and songs feel cut short. When Lillias White sings “The Bluest of Blood Is Hard to Find,” the song feels about half through when intrusive stage business blurs it out. As if worried we aren’t being entertained — or afraid things might get too serious — director Stafford Arima adds cute bits. Example: When American Idol’s Sabrina Sloan (Quele) and Josh Tower (Gallant), who played The Lion King’s Simba on Broadway for five years, sing “Love at First Sight,” they don’t need a tree branch with white, cartoony doves waving over their heads to help them make the point.
Worse: some of the bits, and some of the writing, use African-American stereotyping. How do you cure people who are “blacktose intolerant”? Ham hocks and cornbread. Anything for a laugh.…
Most of all, the episodic book needs to give us stronger reasons to turn the page. Hena, the conniving cousin, is the villain. But even though Jennifer Leigh Warren’s terrific in the role, the character itself isn’t villainous enough. Hena’s passive-aggressive; her threats are just asides. But fables of this sort demand monsters as big as your nightmares. So the story has nothing firm to push against and, in the end, no earned victory.
In effect, the Rep’s Princess is a talent show — a great parade, but that naked dude on the throne waving to the crowd? Just a pretender.
The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea, book by Kirsten Childs, music by Andrew Chukerman, lyrics by Chukerman and Karole Foreman
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Stafford Arima; cast: Randy Aaron, Brooke Aston, P.L. Brown, Loren Sharice Lott, Sylvia MacCalla, Warren G. Nolan Jr., Angela Wildflower Polk, Kalif Price, Ken Prymus, Sabrina Sloan, Angela Teek, TON3X, Josh Tower, Jennifer Leigh Warren, Lillias White; scenic design, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Jennifer Setlow; sound, Tom Jones
Playing through December 21; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.