Watching Jonelle Allen in Harlem Renaissance, you can't help thinking you're in the presence of Broadway Royalty. She debuted in Manhattan at the age of six, and has been performing ever since. Us Brits who don't get to the Times Square as often as we'd like will probably recognise Allen from the TV series Dr Quinn, in which she played Grace for many years.
Harlem Renaissance is the story of Florence Mills, largely forgotten today because recording equipment in the early twentieth century couldn't capture her remarkable voice, but hailed as the first African American star of Broadway. After her death in 1927 from tuberculosis, Duke Ellington memorialised Mills in his song Black Beauty.
The story is narrated by Steve Josephson, who also directs and wrote the script. It's punctuated by songs from Florence Mills' life such as I'm A Little Blackbird Looking For A Bluebird, which Mills is probably best know for.
Singing Some of These Days and looking straight into my eyes, Allen could have been looking directly into my soul. I felt honoured to be in such an intimate space with a lady of such pedigree. But the show, unfortunately, has flaws. The disconnected nature of the songs interrupt the flow of the storytelling; and the storytelling gets in the way of the songs. It is trying to be both a biography and a revue, but fails to achieve being either.
Allen is also miscast. Florence Mills was 31 when she died, but Jonelle Allen is now, dare I say it, in her sixties. The maturity of her vibrato occasionally revealed itself, and songs like Miss Hannah from Savannah simply didn't work.
An enjoyable early evening show, nonetheless, and I'm glad to have seen Jonelle Allen perform in Edinburgh.