In a dim room, a spotlight shines on an empty stage.
To one side, Elvis Presley practices vocal warm-ups with four of the five Temptations, while Diana Ross hastily ties Ruth Brown’s sash before Brown is called on stage. A young Stevie Wonder and an older Stevie Wonder are picked out by their dark glasses, standing side by side near the stage door.
In “Blues, Soul and Rock N’ Roll,” the cast takes on roles of American music legends from 1908 to present in an original musical review arranged by Hugh R. Copeland, The Hurrah Players' founder and artistic director. The show combines decades of iconic soundtracks and spotlights artists who paved the way for the modern American music scene.
The production highlights Hampton Roads' locals who had pivotal roles influencing American music. Ella Fitzgerald, born in Newport News, is honored in the song “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.” Ruth Brown, a Portsmouth native, is played by Shanon Cook, who has performed under Copeland’s direction since she was 14. Cook sings “If I Can’t Sell it, I’ll Keep Sittin’ on It” from the Broadway musical “Black and Blue.”
Despite many challenges in her personal life, Brown recorded countless hits with Atlantic Records and went on to win a Tony performing on Broadway in later years. Cook said she respects Brown’s resilience.
“What’s interesting too, with not just Ruth, but so many of these musicians that we are highlighting went through many difficult times,” Cook said. “Yeah, there were a couple that their difficulties led to their demise. Yet there were so many like Ruth Brown that didn’t let their difficulties stop them, but it propelled them into their careers.”
Cook described Brown as “pure, gutsy, organic” and said the opportunity to portray her to new audiences is both a challenge and an honor.
Other cast members recognize similar opportunities to honor music legends. Lucius Bennett, who sings B.B. King’s hit song “The Thrill Is Gone,” described a similar feeling of reverence for the late artist.
“He created a legacy that no one seems to be able to fill his shoes, follow in his footsteps,” Bennett said. “I feel an honor, a certain amount of pride in portraying B.B. King. He is my blues idol.”
Bennett sings the blues professionally and proudly calls himself the oldest Hurrah Player.
The show opens this weekend at the Hugh R. Copeland Center in Norfolk’s NEON District. The productions’ smaller venue allows for set designers to create the ambiance of a blues club. Ben Steinhauer, the lighting designer for the show, said the set creates an inclusive audience experience.
“Intimate table seating allows our cast to mingle among the crowd, which is such a rare opportunity to convey their emotion through the songs, while performing only feet away from the audience,” Steinhauer said.
Set designers stay true to the content of the show by presenting it in the type of small environment that it would have debuted.
Copeland has included an artist from each era of American music to cover as much content as possible in the show and to tell a story of the evolution of to current music. Conscious of the impact that earlier generations have on current genres and soundtracks, the show ends with a sing-along finale of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.”
Through this show, Copeland said he hopes the audience is reminded of the contributions the highlighted performers.
“Without their growing music we wouldn’t have the music we have today," he said. "Everything you look at, every type of music, it’s based on styles that go back to the blues.”
If you go
When: 8 p.m. July 27; 3 and 7 p.m. July 28; 3 p.m. July 29
Where: Hugh R. Copeland Center, 112 W. Wilson Ave., Norfolk
Tickets: $25 for reserved table seating or $20 for general admission seating. Tickets can be purchased at www.hurrahplayers.com or 757-627-5437.