Breath & Imagination, Hartford Stage's new show (running Jan. 11 through Feb. 9) about groundbreaking African-American lyrical tenor vocalist Roland Hayes, has announced its cast. It’s a small cast—two singers and a piano accompanist, but pound for pound could not be more impressive. Jubliant Sykes, who’s performed with everybody from the Metropolitan Opera to the Boston Pops, portrays Hayes. Kecia Lewis-Evans, from the original Broadway casts of Leap of Faith, Shrek the Musical and The Drowsy Chaperone (and in Connecticut, last year’s Long Wharf Theater revival of Ain’t Misbehavin’) plays his mother Angel Mo’. Tom Frey, who’s done over 700 performances of Two Pianos Four Hands (having mastered both roles in the show, and often directed it as well), is “The Accompanist” as well as a slew of smaller roles, including King George the Fifth and a horse.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, Hayes toured internationally and was the highest paid tenor in the business, period. He paved the way for the likes of Paul Robeson, William Warfield and other black performers who able to find world-wide fame on classical concert stages when other areas of the arts could be much more rife with racism and segregation.
Breath & Imagination’s songs and script are by Daniel Beaty, who attended Yale as an undergrad, but was nonetheless allowed to stage a show at the grad-student-run Yale Cabaret. It was a two-person show about Paul Robeson. Now he’s evolved to a three-person show about Roland Hayes. Beaty’s other music/theater pieces include Emergency (which had a sold-out engagement at the Public Theater in 2006) and Through the Night (which ran Off Broadway in 2010). He previously worked at Hartford Stage as the theater’s American Voices Playwright-in-Residence during the 2007-08 season.
Hartford Stage’s world-premiere production of Breath & Imagination reunites its director (and the theater’s new Artistic Director) Darko Tresnjak with the set designer of two musicals Tresnjak directed at the Goodspeed Opera House, A Little Night Music and City of Angels), as well as sound designer Jane Shaw (who worked with Tresnjak on The Merchant of Venice at New York’s Theatre for a New Audience) and costume designer Fabio Toblini (who worked on Tresnjak’s Hartford Stage/Long Wharf Theatre co-production of Bell, Book & Candle as well as Hartford Stage’s The Tempest and Hedda Gabler). The music director is Mike Ruckles, who was Associate Musical Director on the theater’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
Breath & Imagination is a co-production with Pittsburgh City Theater, which will produce the show in March.