‘Shake Loose’ at MetroStage is a wonderful trip through pop history

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‘Shake Loose’ at MetroStage is a wonderful trip through pop history
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By Jordan Wright (Photo/Chris Banks)

If you’ve been seeing clouds of steam heat billowing over the rooftop of MetroStage lately, blame it on the four-member cast and six-piece band of “Shake Loose.”

Fire and ice and everything nice best describes the cool daddies and hot ladies in this sizzling revue of music by William Knowles and William Hubbard and the lyrics of Thomas W. Jones II, who doubles as the show’s choreographer. If you’ve followed the musical careers of the composers, you’ll recognize songs and snippets from their other hit shows — “Ladies Swing the Blues,” “Cool Papa’s Party,” “Three Sistahs,” “Bessie’s Blues” and “Pearl Bailey… by Request” — productions that have been at the core of MetroStage’s musical productions over the years.

Geared to each decade, the show taps into the zeitgeist of 20th century African-American music to include vaudeville, big band, jazz, R&B, swing, rural gospel and soul, with a smattering of Broadwaystyle show tunes. Supporting the pitch-perfect soulful voices of Lori Williams, Roz White, Rayshun LaMarr and Anthony Manough are the sweet sounds of a trio of horns and the slow thump of a bass with Knowles himself on a grand piano.

But this is not a concert. It’s a series of seven movements that divide and define the 39 memorable numbers. It opens with the section “Migration Blues,” when the rhythms of 1920s Harlem beckoned blacks to leave the South in droves for the bright lights and vaudeville stages of uptown New York.

There are jumpin’ and jivin’ numbers dotted with the staccato sounds of the quartet’s mad tapping skills in “Sho’ Feet Can Dance” and mournful ballads like, “Rivers Swollen With My Tears” delivered heartrendingly by Williams, who warns of “rivers that bury the bones.” Here Robbie Hayes’ projections follow the early days of Black musical history with clips of New York’s famed Cotton Club and its glamorous chorus girls, and as one lyric claims, “Every boy’s an Almond Joy.”

The demise of the big stages and the rise of vinyl is chronicled in the second movement, “Riot & Rebellion.” In “SSOS” (alternately expressed as sweet sound of soul and sweet sound of surrender), the foursome shift dance styles to The Watusi and Hully Gully while projections of Malcolm X, sit-ins and the march to Selma, Ala. take us down to the nitty-gritty, and Williams again solos in “Lay Your Body Down” as the images recall the assassinations of the great leaders of our time.

In no time flat, we’re swaying to the gyrations of Manough and White in “A Basement Kind of Love” and recalling the days of impromptu parties and hook-ups in the basement of 1960s homes everywhere.

Rolling through the decades of jazz and swing, White takes the spotlight in “Barely Breathing,” a song from “Three Sistahs” that evokes the hot soul sounds of the era and describes a hook up as, “I was his cocoa Cinderella throwin’ myself a ball.”

The cast utilizes every piece of available real estate from the tiered stage and in the aisles to bring the joyful and occasionally heartbreaking songs to the audience. It’s like being in a nightclub where the band jams out on stage behind the singers.

Each singer takes a sexy, sultry star turn in this hold-your-breath production. The music is as mesmerizingly haunting as anything from Tin Pan Alley or 1960s Detroit, and where Michael Jackson, Nat King Cole, Boyz II Men and other musical icons are remembered and reinterpreted. “Shake Loose” is utterly riveting thanks to the beautifully blended harmonies, hilarious antics and the music and lyrics from these iconic composers. I can hardly wait to see this show again.

Through March 6 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

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