New York City Theater
"Sally and Tom"
Castillo Theatre, Manhattan
Given the subject matter, the human rights message, and the earnest efforts involved in “Sally and Tom (The American Way),” one has every reason to hope for a first-rate show. This new off-Broadway musical mounted at the Castillo Theatre takes on the story of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, his long-time black mistress. What could be a more intriguing footnote in our country’s history?
But “Sally and Tom” has a distance to travel before it moves from the amateurish to the professional level. Jefferson, in all his contradictions, certainly warrants a better piece--one that is focused, intense, and dramatic. And if it must be a musical, let it be one with more haunting music and memorable lyrics. Moreover, lectures on history (which writer/co-director Fred Newman interjects freely) belong in history books and not on stage.
Certainly the material’s potential is there, as Jefferson struggles between his lofty democratic ideals and his own life. Though he may say that all men are created equal, he is loath to give up his slaves, not even freeing his beloved Sally. Nor will he oppose political allies on the slavery issue. Compromise is the keyword in his game of politics.
The show does not come to life until well beyond the opening, when Melvin Shambry, Jr. (playing Sally’s son Madison) leaps on stage. Shambry is a multi-talented performer, who serves as narrator, historian, and the much-abused son. He is well matched by Kalia Lynne, who is quite irresistible as the fetching Sally. The two are absolute pros who create vivid, believable characters. But others of the cast are less satisfactory, as is the book itself.
One would hope that “Sally and Tom” goes back to the drawing board for revision, and that the production itself gets a needed upgrading of cast and choreography. But Shambry and Lynne shine even in this flawed piece.
-- Irene Backalenick
October 8, 2005