Thunder Knocking on the Door, the musical blues fable about the Devil and a Southern-fried guitar-licks competition, opens its New York City premiere run — starring Tony Award winners Leslie Uggams and Chuck Cooper— June 20, following previews from June 4.
Uggams and Cooper were part of the Thunder company seen at Trinity Rep in Providence, RI, Feb 15-March 24. Producer Ted Tulchin moved the troupe to Off-Broadway's the Minetta Lane for its commercial residency. Oskar Eustis (artistic director of Trinity Rep) directs, stepping in for Marion McClinton, who helmed the company earlier in Providence. Tulchin told Variety McClinton had another commitment and that Eustis knows the project well.
The work by playwright Keith Glover, with original music by Keb' Mo' and Anderson Edwards played regional theatres throughout the 1990s on its path to New York City. Librettist Glover is now credited with additional music and lyrics.
The Off-Broadway cast includes Cooper (The Life), Peter J. Fernandez (Jelly's Last Jam), Marva Hicks (a Helen Hayes Award winner for this role at Arena Stage in DC), Michael McElroy (The Wild Party on Broadway) and Uggams (Hallelujah, Baby!).
Producers Mitchell Maxwell and Ted Tulchin had planned to mount the play-with-music into the Minetta Lane in 2000, but that plan was abandoned in order to give the work more time for development and to match the right director to the project. Maxwell told Playbill On-Line he put $250,000 into the development of the show and had such contentious dealings with playwright Glover that he abandoned the project. Maxwell (Summer of '42, Bells Are Ringing) is not a part of the current producing team; Tulchin is producing with Benjamin Mordechai. According to production notes, the show is set in 1966 rural Alabama and is the story of "the Dupree family, whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of Marvell Thunder (Fernandez), a mysterious stranger with amazing powers. A devilish charmer, Marvell challenges Glory (Hicks), the Duprees' blind daughter, to a blues guitar 'cutting contest.' At stake are her family's musical legacy — both past and future — her sight, and perhaps her best chance at love."
Producer Maxwell had helped shepherd Thunder Knocking on the Door in a number of nonprofit venues, including Arena Stage, Geva and the Great Lakes Theatre Festival, and had hoped to find a Broadway house for the unique original work, which does not draw on previous source material. "We did it in those five venues to use the road to make the show as good as possible," Maxwell previously told Playbill On Line.
Glover's musical play concerns the family of a great but undiscovered bluesman who dies from black lung disease. With his family in financial and emotional need, in steps Marvell Thunder, a guitar-wielding stranger who may be their salvation — or ruination.
Thunder takes place at "the crossroads of here and there," where a "shape shifter" challenges a songstress to a magical duel on the delta blues guitar.
Playwright Glover discovered theatre when his mother took him to see For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf. An athletic high school student, Glover wrote a play about football in 1981 that came to the attention of New York's Young Playwrights Festival, where he was especially encouraged by mentor Ruth Goetz (The Heiress).
Thunder was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where it was first produced in 1996. It went on to receive productions at the Arena Stage and the Cincinnati Playhouse, winning the 1997 Osborn Award for Best Play from the American Theatre Critics Association.
Glover has written several plays, including Dancing on the Moonlight and Coming of the Hurricane. Keb' Mo' (Kevin Moore) received a Grammy in 1997 for his contemporary blues album "Just Like You."
Tickets are $45-$65. Minetta Lane Theatre, former home of The Last 5 Years, is at 18 Minetta Lane, at Sixth Avenue. For information, call (212) 307-4100.
— By Kenneth Jones