Tribute to family is warm, not dramatic

Review: Center Stage's `I Could Stop on a Dime' is an affecting portrait of an all-too-ordinary way of life.

May 07, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

One of the more remarkable things about Dianne McIntyre's dance-music-theater piece, "I Could Stop on a Dime and Get Ten Cents Change," is that it's about a fairly unremarkable man.

F. Benjamin McIntyre, Dianne's father, is a member of the black middle class who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Now 84 and retired, he held a variety of jobs -- among them, working in a factory, for a traveling salesman and for the post office. He has been married more than 50 years and raised a devoted family. In short, his is not the sort of life usually celebrated on stage.

But celebration is at the core of Center Stage's production, in which an ensemble of actors tell Benny's story using a text constructed entirely from his words and those of his wife, Dorothy.

Elegant and polished, "Stop on a Dime" is a touching tribute, not only to its creator's father, but to days gone by. The trouble with depicting an unremarkable life, however, is that it's not exactly dramatic or involving.

Center Stage's production, which is also directed and choreographed by McIntyre, is the third full staging of this piece. This time around, she has added the mostly silent character of a Little Girl to the core of seven adult performers, who play a variety of roles.

The child's role -- charmingly played on opening night by Breshae Renee Webb, who alternates with LaTishia C. Lewis -- is so effective, it's difficult to imagine the show without her. Partly a stand-in for the show's creator, the Little Girl also serves as the audience's surrogate, since we see the show through her eyes.

Dressed in a pastel party dress, the Little Girl is the first performer on stage, where she discovers a silver box. When she touches the box, a man appears at the top of a small rear staircase, performs a few slickly choreographed moves and speaks the play's title -- a saying of Benny's that seems to suggest confidence and self-assurance.

The other cast members emerge when the Little Girl dons a pair of eyeglasses she finds in the box. By the end of the show, she has not only gained a sense of history but also some of that self-assurance -- a quality demonstrated when, after repeated attempts to imitate the cast's smooth choreography, she finally masters the most frequently repeated pose.

McIntyre's staging is fluid and evocative, whether the cast is portraying a horse-drawn fire engine, a children's game of "King of the Hill," the technique required to catch and toss mail off a moving train (one of Benny's jobs was with the Railway Mail Service), or being bombed by the enemy in World War II.

One of the strongest segments concerns track star Jesse Owens, who was a schoolmate of Benny's. With long strides that blend athleticism with dance, Kyle Primous portrays Owens from his school days through his triumph at the Munich Olympics and beyond. But this segment, like a few others, would benefit from tightening.

The most somber part of the show is an account of a fatal car accident. In this case, Spencer Scott Barros portrays the abject Benny, whose date was killed when he was driving her home after a church picnic. Taking center stage, he conveys Benny's crushed spirit by attempting to strike a confident pose, only to collapse in the effort.

All of the cast members -- who include Kenneth C. Jackson, Renee Monique Brown, Lisa Renee Pitts, NaTasha Williams and Lester Purry -- deliver agile performances. So does the four-piece, onstage band, which plays period songs as well as original compositions by Kysia Bostic.

Though there's a strong sentimental streak to the proceedings, there are also references to tough times, including several remarks about Baltimore in the days of segregation.

Mostly, however, "I Could Stop on a Dime" is a valentine. "A loving family. That's what we've got," several of the performers tell the Little Girl at the end.

A loving salute to a loving family, the show is like a beautiful heirloom quilt. You admire it and may even be warmed by it, but that doesn't make it a deeply moving experience.

`I Could Stop on a Dime and Get Ten Cents Change'

Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays; 1 p.m. May 19 and May 26. Through June 13

Tickets: $24-$29

Call: 410-332-0033

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