Friday, August 1, 2014

“Visionary Man”: A Soulful Tribute at the Hudson by M.R. Hunter

The name J.B. Murray probably doesn't ring any bells of recognition. Born in 1908, Murray was a tenant farmer raising eleven children in a small town in Georgia and like most people of color in the area, could not read or write. At age 70, however, he experienced a vision from God which instructed him to paint, and create what was called "spirit-script," a wild scribbling he deciphered through a glass of well water, in effect making it holy. This otherwise simple man with no formal training, connections or money would become a respected American folk hero with his art work shown across the country. He died in 1988 having become a significant artist.

It's an impressive biography for a man who preferred to live without electricity in a shack. The world premiere musical at the Hudson adds color and life to J.B. Murray with a soulful libretto supported by a somewhat uneven but passionate cast. The story itself is worth seeing and themes of faith, persistence, hope and serendipity unfold quite lovingly and believably.

 There's much that can be said about Murray, and that's probably the weakest aspect of this musical which runs long at over two hours with an intermission. It is at times unwieldy and attempts to be funny or cute at unnecessary transitions, but it successfully reveals a vivid, accurate portrayal of a man with an unshakable obedience to his beliefs and his unlikely friendship with an agnostic young country doctor. These are the scenes that touch and move. Even more incredibly, the story is true. For those looking for uplifting entertainment, this homespun musical certainly fits the bill.

The production inspires questions and a quick search on one's cell phone to Wikipedia during intermission. There is also a small collection of his work onstage for audience members to examine and see for themselves the mastery of an untrained master. Throughout the show, Murray's art is shown on a projection and it is then that the full appreciation of this historic character is fully realized. The musical lacks depth or the power of other biographical plays like "Red" but it does thoughtfully and earnestly lead the audience through the last 18 years of Murray's inexplicable providence. Photographs of the actual J.B. Murray and his modest home bring to a delightful close the magnitude of such a otherwise unknown figure.

Jimmer Bolden is wonderfully cast as Murray adds a powerful luster to the ballads. Will North as Dr. Williams is also well-cast with an incredible range making these quite the powerhouse duo. Jacqulin Schofield plays up the small town innocence with humor and zeal. Yorke Fryer is a solid antagonist with a couple of amusing numbers he carries with kicky choreography. Ernest Williams gives the Reverend Crawford a nice mix of comedic timing supported by a trio of local busybodies, performed by Sequoia Houston, Stephanie Martin and Courtney Turner.

This is not a show for cynics or those who prefer a cutting edge, avant-garde production. It is at its core, a story about faith. A couple of hours with J.B. Murray will make anyone a believer in the power of art, music, song and expression.

"Visionary Man"
Runs through Aug. 31
Thurs, Fri & Sat @ 8 p.m.
 Sundays @ 3 p.m.
Hudson Mainstage Theater
6539 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90038
PH: 323-960-7787
See listing for more details.

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