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Penumbra’s first show under Sarah Bellamy is a charmer

Allen Weeks

Allen Weeks

With Girl Shakes Loose, Penumbra Theatre officially enters a new era: After a multi-year transition, Sarah Bellamy is stepping into the role of artistic director as her predecessor (and father), Lou Bellamy, becomes artistic director emeritus. The show that marks the change is Girl Shakes Loose, a world premiere from a creative team led by women of color. The story features a young woman adrift, searching for her anchor.

Girl Shakes Loose is billed as a musical, but with its nearly continuous string of powerfully performed songs, it might almost be called a soul opera. The music is by Imani Uzuri, a boundary-breaking composer and singer; Zakiyyah Alexander, who has both stage and TV credits, wrote the book. Both contribute lyrics, incorporating verse by revered poet Sonia Sanchez.

In a program note, Sarah Bellamy writes that the lead character — an unnamed “Girl,” played by Alexis Sims — is “one we rarely see in American theater.” That’s certainly true, but she starts out in some familiar territory: young and restless in New York City. She’s an underemployed but “Overqualified Black Girl,” as one song puts it. She has just fled the Bay Area, bitterly disappointed by the demise of her startup business and a romantic relationship with Ella (Tatiana Williams), recounted in flashback. The Girl also dates men, though it’s clear that the high-octane charmer Barry (Lamar Jefferson) is no potential soulmate.

Learning that her grandmother has died, the Girl heads back to her Georgia hometown, and it’s here that the show really finds its grip. The up-tempo dance numbers recede to make way for a series of haunting duets, including a pair with the Girl’s old flame Eddie (Kory Pullam) and a stirring song with her mother (Thomasina Petrus), who’s still overcoming her resentment at the Girl’s skipping town. The three-act musical concludes with the Girl’s return to California, where she’s determined to make another go of it with Ella.

Under the direction of May Adrales, the nine-member cast easily fills the Penumbra’s compact stage — especially once Karen L. Charles’ choreography kicks in. Set designer Vicki Smith keeps the furnishings to a minimum. Context and comment are provided by Kathy Maxwell’s projections on the set’s walls, with panels that rotate to reflect geographic transitions. A turntable in the stage rotates not for stunts, but to reflect the Girl’s unsettled spirit.

Uzuri’s music ranges widely, and never feels bound by convention: Songs go where the story needs them to go, rather than straining for effect or artificial resolution. The Girl is an intensely demanding role for Sims, who follows Sanford Moore’s hidden band capably from funk to gospel to balladry. She glows with both intelligence and sensuality, two qualities that are often signaled but rarely embodied in musical theater.

Girl Shakes Loose draws you in, first with sheer charm and then with its patient exploration of a complex character at a pivotal point on her journey. It’s a rare, and moving, experience.

Girl Shakes Loose
Penumbra Theatre
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
651-224-3180; through May 14