`Wiz' takes concert stage

Music: Andre De Shields, who grew up in Upton, will narrate `The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine' by the Peabody Trio.

April 03, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Andre De Shields, the Baltimore-born actor who created the title role in the musical "The Wiz," is easin' on down his hometown's roads again. But this time he'll be on the concert stage.

Tomorrow night De Shields appears at the Peabody Conservatory of Music's Friedberg Concert Hall, where he'll narrate a work titled "Le Quattro Stagioni dalla Cucina Futurismo" ("The Four Seasons of Futurist Cuisine"), performed by the Peabody Trio.

Though De Shields and the trio have already performed "Futurist Cuisine" in cities such as Chicago, San Francisco and Putney, Vt., bringing this piece to Peabody is particularly meaningful for the actor.

"When I was growing up in Baltimore in the '50s, the Peabody Institute symbolized a world of deferred dreams for us colored people -- that's what we were called," the 54-year-old actor said last week from his home in New York.

"It was located in a community in Baltimore that was totally inhospitable to people of color."

De Shields suggested the trio perform the piece at its home base. "I said, `Here's a marvelous opportunity for us to bridge that schism.' "

The bridge building began in September when De Shields invited the trio members -- violinist Violaine Melancon, cellist Thomas Kraines and pianist Seth Knopp -- to attend the block party held every Labor Day in Upton, where he grew up.

As a result, Peabody is offering neighborhood residents discount tickets.

"Le Quattro Stagioni dalla Cucina Futurismo" is composed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Aaron Jay Kernis and has a libretto by F. T. Marinetti, which De Shields describes as a Futurist manifesto that uses food as metaphor for adapting to technological revolution.

"Marinetti is suggesting that food should be prepared and eaten as quickly as our technology moves us around the planet," he said.

"It's a far cry from McDonald's. What Marinetti is talking about is political ideology. The libretto suggests a cookbook and a menu for each season.

It is so tongue-in-cheek and evocative of those stereotypical, romantic and larger-than-life approaches to food that we associate with Italians."

Futurist food is hardly all that's on De Shields' plate these days. He's previously narrated classical works with the St. Louis Symphony, the BBC Symphony and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and since June 1997, he's played the continuing role of the Rev. Calvin Dansby on "As the World Turns."

"Not only has it been fun because it's a stretch to be an actor in the television medium, but it also pays the rent," said the actor, whose first soap opera experience came five years ago on "Another World."

On April 13, De Shields travels to San Diego to begin rehearsals for the musical version of "The Full Monty," which opens at the Old Globe Theatre June 1.

The score is by David Yazbek and the book by Terrence McNally, who has changed the setting from working-class Britain to working-class Buffalo.

After San Diego, the show is expected to go on a two-city pre-Broadway tour.

The Old Globe also launched De Shields' last Broadway musical, "Play On!", a loose adaptation of "Twelfth Night" with a score by Duke Ellington.

Though De Shields received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Jester, a character modeled on Feste, the clown, the Broadway production was short-lived.

The musical has had a subsequent life, however. De Shields recreated his role at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and earlier this season he directed a new production at New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre, starring Leslie Uggams and Stephanie Mills.

Nor is "Play On!" De Shields' only connection with Ellington. In 1999, his one-man tribute to the Duke, "Mood Ellington" -- directed and choreographed by Ellington's granddaughter, Mercedes -- premiered at New York University, where he's an adjunct professor.

Finally, the busy actor has also written a libretto for an original piece for the Peabody Trio.

Titled "A Long Way From Home," the work uses dance, music and text to "look at the image of black civilization from the Middle Passage to the 21st century," he said. (The composer, Nansi Carroll, is also a former Baltimorean.)

"A Long Way from Home" debuted as a work-in-progress at NYU in February.

Meanwhile, there's tomorrow's concert, which begins at 8 p.m. at Friedberg Concert Hall, One East Mount Vernon Place. Tickets are $16 general admission, $8 for senior citizens and $5 for students. Call 410-659-8124. The other works on the program are Beethoven's "Kakadu Variations in G Major, Op. 121a" and Schnittke's "Piano Trio."

Spotlighters for sale

The Spotlighters Theatre, which was recently renamed the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre in honor of its late founder, is for sale. Herman's husband, William, and her sister, Genevieve Nyborg, are looking for a buyer who will continue Herman's tradition of presenting "community theater at its best," while giving newcomers a chance to work onstage and backstage, Nyborg said.

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