'Breath and Imagination'

Elijah Rock works theatrical magic as Roland Hayes.

Like so many other biographical dramas, Daniel Beaty’s “Breath and Imagination” attempts to compress a remarkable life into a 90-minute, one-act play. By doing so, only an indelible impression is made, rather than a complete and robust story told.

But, my, what a life and what an impression!

And like other Cleveland Play House-produced biographical dramas about musicians – including “Mahalia,” “One Night With Janis Joplin” and, most recently, “The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” – the success of “Breath and Imagination” resides in creative staging and abundance of musical talent.

This play is about Roland Hayes, a spiritually grounded and classically trained singer who, in the early 20th century, became the first African-American male concert vocalist to achieve international fame. The son of former slaves-turned-tenant farmers, Hayes paved the way for Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson and other artists and, like all trail blazers, was bruised, battered but not bested along the way.

The highs and lows of his remarkable journey are told through beautiful Negro spirituals and classical arias as well as the less interesting, exposition-heavy compositions that Beaty created for this play. Two superb performers deliver them all.

Elijah Rock, as Hayes, masterfully captures the singer’s early humility and later determination as we trace his evolution as a man and an artist through intermittent, chronological flashbacks that start during a concert performance in 1942. More importantly, Rock displays the pure tones and soulful undercurrent that famously resided in Hayes’ vocal presentation. When his sensitive, nuanced rendition of “O del mio dolce ardor” ends, you realize how lost you’ve been in its presentation and how much you look forward to doing the same when the next aria arises.

Just as enthralling and even more enchanting is Daphne Gains as Hayes’ inspirational mother Angel Mo’. Gains is a joy to listen to as she sings the 19th-century church standard “Golden Slippers,” but is at her best providing gorgeous harmony with Rock and delivering no-nonsense guidance with no-nonsense flair throughout the play.

A piece of parental advice reflected in this play’s title is that living a good life is all about taking a deep breath and approaching the world with imagination. Hayes’ first voice instructor, played by the charming Tom Frey, echoes this sentiment as it applies to performing good art. Frey also supplies piano accompaniment and other minor characters.

Rock, Gains and Frey breathe life into this play and director May Adrales, along with her designers, provide a wealth of imagination.

Flashbacks are facilitated by Rachel Hauck’s deceptively simple set, where several tall white pillars on one side serve to represent the Georgia plantation where Hayes was born and raised in the 1880s, as well as Boston’s Symphony Hall.

On the other side of the stage is a gorgeous piano, beside which Rock delivers his arias. Rear projections, devised by Jared Mezzocchi, provide images of Hayes’ vivid memories, and clever lighting by Jeff Nellis seamlessly transports us from one time and place to another. A huge tree center stage, comprised of interlaced metal wiring with thin cloth foliage, takes on the colors of the lights and reflects the emotions of each scene. This adds a pleasant surrealism to the play’s dramatic proceedings.

By the time “Breath and Imagination” comes to a close, the occasional melodrama inherent in its script and the weaknesses in Beaty’s original compositions dissipates amidst the powerful performances and impressive production values.

Ninety minutes is not nearly enough time to tell the tale of Roland Hayes. But it is time very well spent.

WHAT: “Breath and Imagination”

WHERE: The Allen Theatre, PlayhouseSquare in downtown Cleveland

WHEN: Through Sunday, March 9

TICKETS & INFO: $15-$72. Call 216-241-6000 or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com

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