Thunder Knocking on the Door, the blues fable about the Devil and a guitar-licks competition, has been rumbling in regional theatres for several years, and it was finally set to boom in New York City this spring. Producer Mitchell Maxwell had booked the play-with-music into Off Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre, with previews to start May 12 for an opening June 11.
However, Maxwell and his fellow producers have now canceled the venture. "We planned a run of eight performances at the Stamford Center for the Arts in late April," said Maxwell in a statement, "to determine the extent of the work needed on the show before moving to Off-Broadway. Despite positive notices and enthusiastic audience response at a variety of regional theatres, my producing partners and I agreed that...it was not up to the standards of a more discerning New York audience. We did not believe that the artistic collaboration needed to bring it to this level was possible."
[According to the New York Post (May 4), the back-story was a bit uglier than the statement implies. The producers apparently fired Glover as director a couple of weeks ago and brought in George Faison to polish up the show, but Glover kept coming to rehearsals anyway and threatened to file a grievance with the Society of Stage Directors & Choreographers. The Thunder crew were apparently already loading in the set of the $800,000 production when the call came that the production was cancelled.]
Maxwell's previous hope for Thunder was Broadway, but no theatres were available. Eager for a New York run, he chose the intimate Minetta Lane venue, where Fuddy Meers closed April 16. Producer Maxwell had helped shepherd the musical by composer Keb Mo and playwright Keith Glover 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 told Playbill On-Line.
Veterans of the Arena Stage cast, Terry Burrell, Marva Hicks, Kevyn Morrow, Doug Eskew and Peter Jay Fernandez, were expected to return for the Off-Broadway premiere.
Glover's play takes place in 1966 and 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.
What drew Maxwell to the piece?
"I think the music is absolutely sensational...it's unlike any Broadway score but it's truly a Broadway[-style] score full of great [character] songs. The essence of the story and the message is quite exciting."
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.
Victoria Maxwell, Mark Balsam and Ted Tulchin are Thunder's producing partners.
Maxwell previously told Playbill On-Line a hoped-for Broadway run of the show was capitalized at $3 million.
Playwright-director 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."
-- By David Lefkowitz
and Kenneth Jones