It’s a rare occasion at the theater, even for critics, to witness a legitimately show-stopping number.
But even before Nova Y. Payton finished singing the searing ballad “Again?” at press night of Ford’s Theater’s World Premiere musical Grace (★★★★ ☆), the audience was on their feet, ready to bathe the performer in a juicy, well-earned moment of gratitude.
Had Payton launched into an immediate reprise, nobody would have minded. “Again?” is a really good song, among several composed by Nolan Williams, Jr., who also directs the fine eight-piece orchestra, and has got this ensemble cast’s vocals all the way together – save for a straggler or two.
Director-choreographer Robert Barry Fleming has likewise fit the cast together firmly in their excellent portrayal of a large extended Black family in Philadelphia gathered for the memorial of their dear, deceased matriarch, Gran’Me.
Preparing a picnic in the garden behind the family’s restaurant, Minton’s Place, a one-hundred-year tradition in the community and in their family, the Minton cousins and siblings and aunties comprise a lot of moving parts.
Backgrounded by a recently dedicated mural that rises stories above the garden, family members are in and out of the kitchen, up and down steep staircases, carrying food, serving food, eating, singing about, dancing with, and arguing about food.
All the movement and prop business looks effortless, as the cast weaves around Jason Ardizzone-West’s spare but expressive set. And the focus on all that food richly serves the book by Williams and Nikkole Salter.
A good number of Grace‘s songs also hinge on the details of food appreciation and preparation – as do a good number of family gatherings. One absolutely satisfying number, “The Gospel Bird,” is dedicated to the noble chicken that died so that cousin Haley might live.
Haley lives robustly and warmly in Arica Jackson’s performance, which finds the right frequency of funny, salty, and lovable, to top off a glorious voice. She and her castmates broil that “Bird” into a church choir throwdown that has the crowd clapping along. And Solomon Parker III, as community organizer cousin Lawrence, gets the swingin ‘started on the jazzy “Black-Eyed Peas,” where nearly all the Mintons get a moment to shine.
Williams’ score ventures through stage musical interpretations of a myriad of genres, including the aforementioned gospel and jazz, along with blues, R&B, and a soupçon of hip-hop, repped by Rayshun Lamarr’s social media-savvy DJ cousin Joshua. The show weaves intergenerational connections through the music and the script, which tends towards sitcom patness, but still strikes chords of realness.
The performers knock it all out of the park, in any case, with particularly strong contributions from Jackson, Parker, Raquel Jennings as self-proclaimed Afro-boho cousin Jacqui, Jarran Muse as forgot-where-he-came-from cousin EJ, and of course, Payton, as cousin Ruthie, handed the reins to lead the family business into the future, or into ruin.
Improbably originating a musical stage role for the first time, Payton has set an extremely high bar for any performer that follows in the attempt to capture Ruthie’s regret and self-doubt undergirded by indomitable strength and a roof-raising song.
Grace runs through May 14 at Ford’s Theater, 511 Tenth St. NW. Tickets are $ 22 to $ 81. Call 888-616-0270, or visit www.fords.org.