By Tim Sampson
Communications Director, Stax Museum of American Soul Music/Soulsville Foundation
I’ll admit that I was nervous about going to the world premier of SOUL: The Stax Musical at Baltimore Center Stage theater recently. Having helped with the planning of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music some 20 years ago and having lived and breathed Stax Records ever since, I felt like I was going to see my first born’s life story depicted on stage with no idea of how it was going to play out.
The first night, I felt like I was seeing the life of Stax pass before my eyes. I tried to be objective but the Stax historian in me couldn’t help passing judgment on this line and that character and this song and that horn riff. So I went again the next night as just fan of the music.
Stax historians, keep your snapping-finger shirts on. This is not a documentary or an HBO series that factually chronicles every detail of one of the most complicated stories in American history. This is a musical for stage and in its current incarnation it is loosely based on and inspired by the history of Stax Records.
Having said that, the play does follow the musical chronological timeline of Stax, the main characters are Stax founder Jim Stewart, his sister and company co-owner Estelle Axton, promotions man and eventual owner Al Bell, and the Stax public relations director and glue that helped hold everything together, Deanie Parker.
Artists portrayed in the show both musically and with substantial dialogue include Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas.
Others whose songs are included are the Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Mable John, Sam & Dave (although their songs are performed by the Hayes and David Porter characters as the writers), Jean Knight, and, well, we won’t spoil it all for those of you planning to attend.
For casual theatergoers (and believe me, those not yet initiated to our Southern soul “cult” are going to become diehard Stax fans), the storyline is just fine: a young white banker-by-day in Memphis, Tennessee trying to produce black music in a closed-down movie theater during a time of segregation, without much business acumen but with a lot of passion and love of the music. His sister mortgages her own home to invest in the company early on. They take the first two letters of their last names, Stewart and Axton, and create the portmanteau Stax.
Otis Redding arrives from Macon, Georgia as a driver for another band but gets a chance to audition and changes history. Atlantic Records began distributing Stax and sent Sam & Dave to record. Atlantic Records took all of Stax Records’ music leaving them with no product to sell. Otis Redding, by then the label’s biggest star, gets killed in a plane crash at 26 years old along with all of the members of the Bar-Kays except Ben Cauley and James Alexander. Dr. Martin Luther King gets assassinated in Memphis just a few minutes from the Stax studios. Al Bell comes up with a plan for a “Soul Explosion” to record almost 30 albums in just a few months to bring Stax back to the game. Stax gets to be a bigger company, Estelle Axton leaves, the company has a second phase of success, and is ultimately forced into involuntary bankruptcy in 1975, after which the building gets demolished but the site becomes home to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
The play covers all those bases with some poetic license dropped in here and there to make it as entertaining as possible for the general, theatergoing public. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. In fact, one of the most dynamic scenes in the play features the character of Estelle Axton (Mary Jo Mecca) singing along with Tasha Taylor, Johnnie Taylor’s real-life daughter, who steals the show vocally in several roles, including Mavis Staples) on Mable John’s “Your Good Thing (Is About to End) while smoking a cigarette under a spotlight. No, Estelle Axton was not a singer, Stax historians, but the scene is remarkable and Mecca has a powerhouse voice.
Of course, what has made the play an instant, rave review-garnering success that’s selling out the 500-plus-seat theater over and over, is the music of Stax Records. With more than 30 hits showcased in solo and ensemble performances, it’s the the timelessness of the music, the quality of the songs, the messages in the lyrics, the sheer volume of the catalog, and the fact that everyone knows the songs; they just never knew they came from that little mom-and-pop record company in Memphis. (We see that at the Stax Museum every single day.) The music indeed infectious enough to make this more than a run of the mill “jukebox musical.”
Another thing that sets this production apart is the genius set design. A series of scrims portraying the Stax Records building as the original movie theater in which it was housed, in its heyday as a recording studio, the years of decay after the label was forced into bankruptcy, and its final demolition are downright emotional.
If you do get a chance to see this show at Baltimore Center Stage during its run through June 10th, go a little early. The evening starts with lives music and dancing in the lobby, which, by the way, is decked out in all things Stax like a shrine to the label and its roster of unforgettable stars. For a true Stax fan, it is breathtaking.
SOUL: The Stax Musical. Book by Matthew Benjamin. Music and Lyrics by Various Stax Artists. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Choreography by Chase Brock. Produced in association with Stuart Benjamin and Concord Music.
For tickets and other information about Baltimore Center Stage and/or to download the play’s program, please visit:
LINKS TO OTHER REVIEWS
The Washington Post
The Baltimore Sun
DC Metro Theater Arts