The work by librettist Keith Glover, composer Keb Mo and lyricist Anderson Edwards has been seen in regional theatres, in various stages of development and shepherded by different directors and producers, since the 1990s. Librettist Glover is now credited with additional music and lyrics.
This latest incarnation originated in a February 2002 staging by Trinity Rep. Marion McClinton staged the Trinity run in Rhode Island, and Oskar Eustis took over the helm for Off-Broadway. Tony Award-winner Leslie Uggams and Chuck Cooper are among cast members in the blues fantasy about a family tempted by a devilish musician. It will have played a total of 18 previews and 44 regular performances.
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!).
A cast album, on the independent label, DLP Records, is expected for an August release. It was recorded July 7-8. *
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." McElroy plays Glory's brother, Jaguar; Uggams is their mama, Good Sister Dupree; and Cooper plays their late father (Jaguar Sr.) and his twin brother, Dregster.
Uggams, Cooper and Co. 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 is artistic director of Trinity Rep. Tulchin told Variety McClinton had another commitment and that Eustis knew the project well enough to carry on in New York.
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 later dropped the project. Tulchin is producing with Benjamin Mordechai, in association with Mari Nakachi, Robert G. Bartner and Stephanie McClelland.
Producer Maxwell had helped shepherd Thunder Knocking on the Door in a number of nonprofit venues, including Arena Stage, Geva, Baltimore Center Stage 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