As the old saying goes, “Birds of a feather must funk together.” And funk they do in the Alliance Theatre’s Beautiful Blackbird Live!, a family-friendly concert and the first of three in-person shows debuting as part of the company’s “Under the Tent” series.
Blackbird (Thursday–Sunday through April 18, times vary) is staged beneath a simple white covering pitched outside the Memorial Arts Building, near the marquee, on the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra side of the building. The sweet 30-minute venture delivers some fun tunes and inventive plumage (from costume designer Lex Liang).
The telling is loosely based on the Coretta Scott King Award-winning book of the same name written by acclaimed author Ashley F. Bryan, who, at 97, has earned more honors that you can shake your tail feathers at — including a Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, a Kirkus Prize and a Newbery Medal.
The Alliance has featured Bryan’s work before. The company musicalized his Dancing Granny in 2017, and Beautiful Blackbird began life as part of its Theatre for the Very Young (ages 0–5), also in 2017. This Live! version has ostensibly been retooled for a broader family audience.
Even with show-sanctioned swaying encouraged, Live! does its best to follow COVID-19 protocols. Along clearly marked aisles, people sit in two or four-person pods spaced 6 feet apart. Everyone must wear a mask.
Beautiful Blackbird Live! uses cut-paper collage techniques to spin Bryan’s traditional Zambian fable, which like many allegories focuses on animals who share messages of self-acceptance — Black is beautiful and we should all love and celebrate our unique strengths, talents and gifts, in this case.
The concert version lacks most of the tale’s narrative storytelling, and suffers as a result. The playful, alliterative cadence of the original writing remains in songs that urge audience members to get out of their seats and dance: “Beak to beak, peck, peck, peck / Spread your wings, stretch your neck / Black is beautiful, uh-huh! Black is beautiful, uh-huh!”
The original score comes from Atlanta theater artist and composer Eugene H. Russell IV. He recently wrote original music for the Alliance’s still-streaming animated short Sit-In, set during the civil rights movement and written by playwright-in-residence Pearl Cleage. In Blackbird, he’s the band’s frontman, a musician named Love Bird, who projects a Jimi Hendrix vibe and a trippy wardrobe.
The five-member avian Parliament-Funkadelic ensemble — wearing masks with beaks and glorious getups like silky sheer pink capes and green-and-purple feather sleeves — confidently owns the space, filling the morning air with music.
Russell — sometimes wailing on his saxophone — and co-lead singer Alexandria Joy (Fly Bird) do their best to amp up the crowd. Each player has impressive musical chops and professional credentials (guitarist Brandon A. Thomas, for example, has toured with Leon Bridges and worked with Ginuwine and Angie Stone).
Particularly charming is the passionate cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird,’” which flows organically from an original Russell composition. It’s here, in particular, that Russell and Joy showcase their powerhouse vocals.
Still, the Under-the-Tent layout is so necessarily spaced out that Live! rarely feels like a full-throttle concert, an issue that challenges all live events in the age of COVID. Perhaps media elements would benefit the minimalist backdrop, a cityscape at dusk. The Alliance has two trailers — one animated, one featuring the band — so why not use those in some way?
Attendees of any age likely will get more from the experience if they’ve read Bryan’s 40-page story (he, himself, reads it aloud in this PBS segment).
One final note: If you attend Sunday morning, you’ll see two tents in close proximity. One, seductively promising free doughnuts and coffee, is run by the Free Chapel evangelical church, which has been using the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Theatre during the pandemic. Just remember that the folks with the free coffee and doughnuts, as tempting as that may be, are NOT the bird-band funk show. Repeat: NOT the bird band funk show.