Jeannette Bayardelle is a talent to behold. She’s got pipes to rival Lincoln Cathedral and more than enough stage presence to carry the dozen or so characters she portrays in her 75-minute one-woman show. Funky, enthralling and categorically impressive, her musical creation SHIDA reveals awe-inspiring singing and performance skill with a palpable dedication to her work that takes the word ‘professional’ to a whole new level.
Having made its way from beginnings at storied Manhattan jazz venue, Birdland, to London’s SE1 fringe theatre launch-pad, The Vaults, Bayardelle has evolved the work – for which she has written music, lyrics and book – into a one-woman musical. Without question, this is a musically-appealing work anchored by an exceptional and charismatic performer and backed-up with a first-rate band led by Noam Galperin.
Clancy Flynn’s lighting design is just right – serving the performance subtly and effectively without pulling focus but playing a key role in the staging. Together with an understated and practical set by Charlie Corcoran and Chris Drohan’s sound design, the production design transports us convincingly to different places in space and time with a light, but affecting, touch. Director Andy Sandberg treats The Vault’s lack of wings and backstage space as opportunity and works the auditorium effectively for both intimacy and grandeur.
However, as theatre, rather than a themed concert, the story-telling doesn’t feel quite developed enough… yet. SHIDA is compelling and beautiful in many ways. This work (in its current incarnation) offers much excitement and satisfaction simply in witnessing so much talent and promise embodied in a single show; but in seeking to be so faithful to real-life events with which the creator is personally connected, it misses out on some of the power of drama to connect. I was thoroughly impressed and drawn into the groove, but the memoir-like literalism of the work didn’t deliver the goose-bumps of which I am sure Ms Bayardelle’s exquisite singing gift is capable. SHIDA is credible in recounting trauma but not – yet – fully fledged in offering the unique sad beauty of the blues or reaching the rarest heights of inspiration that almost only gospel can bring. Nonetheless, for its production budget and ticket price, SHIDA stands confidently within the top tier of musical entertainment currently on offer in London.
Cloaked in tragedy, we meet Shida as she stumbles to the stage soulfully singing ‘Let My Light Shine’ as an ode to the crack rock she is smoking. As our first image, the impact is throat-grabbing. As song, this opening number has wonderful lyrical texture and irony. Jolted to attention and enraptured by Bayardelle’s voice, we immediately know we are in the realm of quality. We then meet the eponymous character in flashback as an exceptionally bright and hopeful child who dreams of being a writer, witnessing this actor’s deftness in character transformation. However, in the next few musical numbers that depict a childhood rapidly plagued with trauma, the question of whether Bayardelle’s playwriting is ready to keep up with her tour de force vocal and character delivery surfaces. As the play progresses it exposes some structural weaknesses. You could almost miss the dramatic reversal because, despite – or indeed because of – the vocal pyrotechnics, we are not included in the interior world of the protagonist but experience the story, at this stage, through her best friend’s eyes (Bayardelle’s real life role).
SHIDA is nearly operatic in that it moves from song to song. Thanks to Bayardelle’s gifts, the effect is like listening to a pleasing concept album by a great artist. But I couldn’t help feeling a little frustrated that there wasn’t more dramatic structural warp to make a classic tragedy-and-redemption story resonate more deeply and wondered if other voices and harmonies plus a few catchier numbers would serve as weft so that she could weave us an even richer texture. The pace is somewhat relentless so both greater variety and more space would help the story sink in before we’re off to the next emotionally intense episode. Whilst it was thrilling to be propelled backwards in your seat by this voice of voices, I also would have liked to have had a few catchier ditties or memorable ballads to hum to myself on the way home.
In terms of taking the story-telling to the next level, I was reminded of the highly autobiographical musical A Strange Loop that sold-out off-Broadway’s Playwright’s Horizons earlier this year. Its writer and composer, Michael R. Jackson, made a point of not performing the lead role in order to maintain distance which let the work enjoy the full dramatic power of fiction. It would be criminal to take Jeannette Bayardelle off the stage, but I think SHIDA would benefit from some further work-shopping with another writer and composer to transform this true story into theatre of universal truth. (In fact I’d love to see what would happen if the irreverence and hit-making catchy song-writing and plot structuring of @TheLivingMJ collaborated with the mesmerising performance abilities of @JBayardelle!) This is not at all to say ‘start again’. She has written some musical gems like ‘Let My Light Shine’ and ‘I Believe’, but others, like ‘My Baby’, feel more like a vocally arranged misery memoir than the transcendental art of which this exceptional artist is clearly capable of delivering.
My observations about the writing should not dissuade anyone from going to see this show: it is powerful, exciting, entertaining and memorable. Rather, I suspect Jeannette Bayardelle and her director Andy Sandberg will continue to develop her work and it may just turn into a masterpiece, but we are simply not at that stage of evolution yet. No matter what, it is joyous to see an incredible artist embark on a journey that surely has more twists and turns, so do check out SHIDA at The Vaults in Launcelot Street while you can (until 13th October) but also follow Bayardelle for further evolution.
Set to a soulfully contagious score of rock, jazz, R&B, and gospel music, SHIDA is based on the true story of a young African-American girl who aspires to become a writer, tracing the ups and downs of her family, friendships, and love life – from the double-dutch court at St. Mary’s Catholic School in the Bronx to a scholarship at NYU. Her dreams become sidetracked by hardship and loss until her faith and those closest to her combine to restore Shida’s hope and give her a second chance.
Written and Performed by Jeannette Bayardelle
Directed by Andy Sandberg
Music Supervision by Joshua Zecher-Ross; Music Direction: Noam Galperin
Scenic Design: Charlie Corcoran; Sound Design: Chris Drohan
11 September – 13 October 2019