“You knew my music,” Lloyd Price tells us near the end of People’s Light’s polished world-premiere production of Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical. “Now you know my name and you know my story.”
Not quite true: Even the music, an early progenitor of rock and roll, was new to me. Before I learned of the show, I’d never heard the name. But now that I’ve seen it, I know at least fragments of the story.
A jukebox musical that takes its title from one of Price’s biggest hits (which also gave him his nickname, “Mr. Personality”), Personality is obviously a labor of love. B. Jeffrey Madoff, a fashion designer turned filmmaker, wrote the episodic book with an assist from Price. In a program note, Madoff describes the singer-songwriter, who died last year at 88, as a musical pioneer, an “unsung hero,” and a close friend.
It’s tragic that Price, who rose from digging ditches in the Jim Crow south to being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, didn’t live long enough to see this premiere.
Directed by Sheldon Epps and packed with Broadway talent, Personality looks and mostly sounds great. Scenic and media designer David Gallo, lighting designer Jeff Croiter, and video designer Steve Channon recreate a nostalgic showbiz world with footlights, purple and magenta hues, and projections of club facades.
Two actors play Price as he morphs from naive country boy to sophisticated showman and entrepreneur in two slickly paced acts. Saint Aubyn, who starred in Broadway’s Temptations musical, Ain’t Too Proud, anchors Personality as both its narrator and the older Price. Nathaniel Washington plays Young Lloyd Price, whose 1952 teenage debut, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” was a crossover hit that vaulted him out of Kenner, Louisiana.
Aubyn and Washington look nothing alike, but they are both electrifying performers. So, too, is Miles Boone, as Price’s rival, Little Richard, and, for that matter, the rest of the ensemble. They’re accompanied by a sometimes overpowering five-piece onstage band under the direction of Shelton Becton. Edgar Godineaux’s stylish choreography and Karen Perry’s costumes evoke the changing times.
Madoff’s book is best when it’s most specific about Price’s confrontations with the virulence of racism and the predatory nature of the music business. (Stopped by police while driving in Texas, Price and his band allegedly avoid disaster by donning turbans and pretending not to understand English — an incident so absurd that it must surely have happened.)
But the narrative is sketchy and generic in spots. On tour, Price succumbs to the expected sexual temptations, and his early marriage combusts. (Desireé Murphy is Emma, his wronged wife, a thankless cliché of a role.) Women and children disappear from Price’s life during Act II. Instead, we get a buddy musical focused on Price’s business partnership with the rascally but loyal Harold Logan (Stanley Wayne Mathis).
Madoff’s primary message is that Price successfully bridged the barriers separating white and Black music, and white and Black audiences. “The wall of racism that kept kids apart got knocked down by the pounding beat of rock and roll,” Price declares.
The show touches on the darkness and complexities in Price’s story, without fully shaping them into drama — perhaps too high a bar for a jukebox musical. Personality remains a worthy act of musical reclamation, lively entertainment and, given the modest ticket price, a great bargain.
“Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical” is presented by People’s Light on the Leonard C. Haas Stage, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, through April 3. Masks and either vaccination proof or recent negative COVID-19 test required. Socially distanced performances available. Tickets: $45. Information: peopleslight.org or 610-644-3500.