Five Fingers Of Funk will steal your heart, you dig?

In the groove: All Five Fingers
Rob Levine

As utopias go, the version afforded by 1970s funk was better than most: bottom-heavy rhythms, general ebullience, tons of sex, and imagery that combined the knowingness of the street with the pop glory of the comic-book page. While there wasn't a unified vision (P-Funk probably came closest), it all faded in time, leaving behind a passel of evergreen recordings and, for the rest, a gloss of kitsch applied by the years like so much varnish.

Will Power's Five Fingers of Funk provides a pretty sturdy time machine back to the era, seen here through the lens of a high school garage band with designs on a place on the Mothership. Lest anyone fear that funk's goofy side will be under-represented, the proceedings open with the appearance of Dr. Funk (Edwin Lee Gibson), in shiny jumpsuit and shades, a speechifying George Clinton surrogate with the requisite blissed-out grin and patter about funk's cosmic significance.

That was the showbiz side, back in the day, and from there we come resoundingly back to earth with our young combo playing the title song. It's an exhilarating moment, and a sure sign that Power and Justin Ellington's compositions are going to walk the tricky line between evoking the best of the era and sounding playable by what are supposed to be competent amateurs.

The characters are reasonably well drawn, even if the ambience and plot whisper of bygone After-School Specials. At the fore of the Fingers is the lead singer and driving force, Poppo (Jahi Kearse), who is effectively an orphan. His primary foil is Big Ced (Keith A. Hale), a chubby mama's boy in whose garage the band convenes, and whose songwriting and singing ambitions Poppo tamps down with minimal effort.

Band politics can only carry a show so far, and in due course the temptations of drugs and romance enter our teens' lives. Gibson reappears as Slim, singing in a melodious Bootsy Collins purr while offering Poppo chemical bliss (and, even more insidiously, a window into the substance-enhanced mind-set of his musical heroes). As for romance, Big Ced has a major crush on keyboard player Ruby (Traci M. Allen). It's reciprocated, but only after a couple of painful detours.

Director Derrick Sanders keeps the dramatic side of this musical laudably fat-free, although the tendency toward lightness drains some of the impact from the play's darker moments. Drummer DP (Namir Smallwood, able to mug hilariously while somehow convincing us it is part of his character) develops notions of living in a Chocolate City, for instance, that preclude citizenship for white guitarist Falcon (Matt Rein), but the production's overall sweetness makes it hard to believe such abiding tensions.

Kearse is more believable as Poppo begins a descent into dirty deeds. His energy as Poppo is distinct from the other four band members from the outset. He is riddled with a barely controlled anxiety, lashing out and controlling the others while seemingly on the verge of a panic attack at any moment. And Allen's Ruby has the flush of a young woman living a secret life away from her strict preacher father. She even falls under Poppo's spell for a time and agrees to some rehearsal rump-shakeage for the lascivious tune "Bootylicious." (Greta Oglesby, as Big Ced's Momma, listens appalled from the top of the basement stairs.)

Oglesby steals a great moment with Allen in the duet "Stand Up," and Allen and Hale combine for a touching musical interlude in which their characters confess their love for each other—and the seeming impossibility of either acting on it. (The two have the richest voices in the band. Allen later belts out a number that wouldn't have been out of place on a Gladys Knight album). We end on a high note, as we should, and while this story offers little that sticks in the mind longer than the drive home, somehow the whole feels greater than the sum of its parts. We might never become one nation, but it's certainly worthwhile to spend some time under a groove. 

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