OK, let’s make it clear: I am the perfect target audience for Theo Ubique’s latest musical, 8-Track, Rick Seeber and Michael Gribbin’s song cycle of 70s superhits. I came of age in the 70s, when the music—ranging from proto-metal like Led Zeppelin to country-influenced pop from Ann Murray, the Eagles, or BJ Thomas to the rock of the Guess Who and Three Dog Night to songs from musicals like Hair or Jesus Christ, Superstar to glorious meditations from Roberta Flack or Billy Joel to the mid-decade sound of disco to the sweet, personal songs of Bread and The Carpenters to pure Motown soul and R&B—could all be found on a single AM radio station along with multitudinous one-hit wonders, movie themes, and novelty songs. My local station was Boston’s WRKO, which still played 50s oldies but introduced me to Harry Chapin and Aerosmith, among many others. Oh, and the Rolling Stones, Moody Blues, and Beatles (together and separately) were still omnipresent on its playlists.
This music is nothing less than the soundtrack of my life. Every song takes me back and conjures specific memories. I listened to them all through high school and college, and—though the physical copies of the records and CDs are gone now—I still listen to them today both online and in the evergreen K-Tel compilations in my mind. So let’s just say I was pumped for this show.
I was not disappointed.
Honestly, it would probably have been enough merely to relive the joy of hearing “What’s Goin’ On?,” “Smoke From a Distant Fire,” “Peace Train,” “I Will Survive,” and (yes) even “YMCA” sung live by talented performers, but director/choreographer Jamal Howard and musical director Jeremy Ramey don’t settle for that. Instead, they spin this eclectic collection—for what else could any 70s compilation be?—into a series of often-interconnected vignettes that take us on a journey through the decade from the horrors of Viet Nam to the frivolousness and decadence of discos, allowing the singers to bring the songs to life in brand new ways.
Wesly Anthony Clergé takes the central position for a grouping of early 70s war protest songs (including Edwin Starr’s iconic “War”). We watch as he is drafted; his reaction to a very early number in the draft lottery reminded me of being with my uncle—four years older than I—and his buddies as they watched their futures play out in little balls on a black and white TV screen. But his story doesn’t end there: he goes to fight and witnesses hell before finally coming home to attempt to reassimilate into an America that has moved on without him. It helps, in these scenes and others, that the ensemble (Alli Atkinson, Chamaya Moody, Matt Patrick, and Roy Samra) play out their supporting roles with complete commitment, immersing us in the stoner party of “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” as fully as they lead us into the protest vibe of “Taking It to the Streets,” and that the choreography is consistently fun.
Mia Nevarez sings a haunting rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” with Wesly as well as a powerful version of “You Light Up My Life,” which Howard uses to introduce a quiet running “story” of a lesbian love affair. He also gives Patrick O’Keefe, taking the lead on “I’m Not in Love,” “Alone Again, Naturally,” and others, a subtextual and ongoing gay plotline. Both of these subplots highlight the deep emotional content of the songs—O’Keefe even sings snippets of “Feelings,” though that feels a bit on-the-nose—no matter which gender they are about, even if the gay people they connect to here would likely have been deep in the closet in the actual 70s. Rounding out the four leads is Jasmine Lacy Young, who gets to showcase her powerful voice in “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “I Am Woman” but also is allowed some more subtle moments in “Your Song” and “Make It With You.”
8-Track is not a perfect sampling of the 70s. Carole King, Tina Turner, ABBA, and others are completely missing (most likely because rights to their music are tied up in other shows). The only nods to novelty music is a completely fun full-company staging of “Convoy” and “Afternoon Delight” (unless “Car Wash” and “Cantina Band” count; do they?). Whatever it might be missing, though, this play and this company provide an evening of wonderful entertainment as they allow us to travel through our memories to an era that (Viet Nam excluded) seems much more innocent than this one.
8-Track is playing at Theo Ubique Theatre until Jan 23, barring COVID emergencies