As you'd expect, this hypnagogic Luther Vandross musical doles out the legendary R&B-er's inviolable songs. Along the way though, it shrewdly excavates the ennui and loneliness which dogged the singer up until his death—namely, endless speculation surrounding Vandross' private life (something he maniacally refused to comment on) and his persistent battles with his health, weight, and body image. "Luther" captures those slow jamming insecurities and recalls what Jason King wrote of Vandross' pathos-wrought approach to soul in a 2005 Village Voice obituary. "Vandross was lucky enough to have the kind of voice that conveyed truths that he kept unspoken," King writes. "[H]e instinctively knew that what gives love songs their zing is the subtextual terror of loneliness."
Directed and conceived by Randolph Smith and playing through this weekend at Arena Players, "Luther" takes place in 2003 when Vandross suffered a stroke and fell into a coma for two months. The gamey first act presents a series of chats between Vandross, played by Tamba Giles, and Vandross' mother, Mary Ida, played by Tiajuana Rountree, at a physical rehabilitation center. Along with singing these classic songs expertly—but not too expertly, they add rough edges and avoid simple recitation—both actors evidence the kind of coy intimacy that nevertheless finds an abiding son and mother sometimes biting their tongues about certain issues from time to time. As Vandross, Giles is haughty and playful, countering the oft-sequined soulster shtick Vandross had on stage and exposing the ways in which Vandross was frequently deflecting and hiding a lot of hurt. Underneath all his lite funk, there was a forever brewing quiet storm of longing. Giles invites some menace into these coiffed, sexy songs: his performance of 'A House Is Not A Home'—a pop-soul '60s hit that Vandross stretched into an seven-minute emotional epic about romantic failure in 1981—is pure crowd-pleasing loverman bravado, but also a singular wounded howl; 'Never Too Much' suggests an existential hole that can't be filled, not just chart-topping lusty hunger; and 'If Only For One Night' becomes an anthem of near codependent desperation rather than an ode to hooking up.
Smith handles exposition—always a problem in narrowcasted biographical melodrama—through dramatic sleights-of-hand. As a play structured mostly around a semi-argumentative joshing session between mother and son in a time of crisis, often bursting into torch song, it's logical that Mary Ida recounts Vandross' birth back to him (she had a ruptured appendix seven months into her pregnancy, which led to Vandross being born premature) or tells Vandross, and therefore us, why his middle name is Ronzoni (it was a brand of pasta she craved when she was pregnant). It all feels like less a smuggling in of context than a very real recreation of the rote intimacy of family and the ways in which parents place mini-mythologies on their children.
Even some of "Luther's" modest flaws are twisted enough that they come off as dramatic quirks. The simple set—some lights, a wheelchair, a few other props and nothing more—adds to the almost surreal quality of the play; fitting since for most of it Vandross is in recovery, not quite himself, and in some scenes still in a coma. So events bump into each other, characters seem to double, and time gets smooshed. For certain musical numbers, dancers elegantly move across the stage almost in slow motion, academically dancing to Vandross' songs, further placing us in some kind of interzone between music video and dream state. It's nearly avant-garde.
Once a press conference scene announcing Vandross' return to the stage after his stroke wraps up, the second act gets rather crumbly and pretty much becomes a race through more Vandross tunes without much melodrama to even glue it together. But it also detours for a staggering mother and son duet of Rev. James Cleveland's 'I Don't Feel No Ways Tired'—revealing the non-pop influences on Vandross—that feels like it should be there, tonally, even if it doesn't parse in the narrative. The play essentially abandoning its thrust forward in act two just to give us the songs we want to hear fits Vandross' M.O. anyway: He was always pivoting back to showy performance to avoid revealing much of anything about himself.
"Luther" echoes the far more expansive and expensive, though in some ways far less subtle "Marley" and "Fela!," and elides gauche hagiography. You're mostly witnessing Vandross at his most down and out, but nevertheless singing his biggest hits in a wheelchair or with a cane, or otherwise hounded by cruel speculation (his sickness and weight loss resurrected AIDS rumors that dogged him the '80s). The best male vocalist of his lifetime, who sung almost exhaustively about people connecting, was seemingly forever lonely and was possibly, probably, and according to some sources inarguably queer (Jason King again: "Though he never came out as gay, bisexual, or even straight, you had to be wearing blinders—as many of his fans, particularly female, must have been—to overlook his queerness"). Because Vandross himself never commented on it one way or another, and because the play is such a closed-circuit, taking place almost entirely with Vandross chatting with his mother or ducking reporters' questions, his sexuality remains a subtext. But what becomes clear is a tangible sense of how Luther Vandross couldn't really be the person he was (whoever that person was) if he was going to also be this vessel for facilitating the whole world smooching, longing, dancing, doin' it, and persevering.
"Luther" runs through June 12 at Arena Players. For more information, visit arenaplayersinc.com.