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‘Bridges’ tunefully spans decades with civil rights tales

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Berkeley Playhouse’s “Bridges: A New Musical” is set in 1965 Selma, Alambama (pictured) and in the Bay Area, in 2008. (Courtesy Ben Krantz Studio)
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“Bridges: A New Musical,” a world premiere at Berkeley Playhouse, covers a lot of ground. It’s also a keeper.

With a book and lyrics by Cheryl L. Davis and catchy music by Douglas J. Cohen, the show cleverly weaves together two important stories: of demonstrators marching to give blacks the right to vote in 1965, and of activists seeking marriage rights for same-sex partners in 2008.

Often, when program notes offer a historical timeline (as is the case for “Bridges”), it’s a signal of a troubled show that lacks clarity and cohesion.

But “Bridges” is far from vague or confusing.

It makes its historical points the best way, by telling personal, touching, connecting stories.

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The contemporary thread focuses on Franki, a Bay Area teen whose home includes her black father, a straight-laced pastor; her white mother, who uses the word “biracial” frequently; her biracial brother Eddie; and Grandma, dad’s mother, who has a leg injury.

Franki is under pressure, mostly from dad, to put activities on her college application form. Staying true to herself, and meeting the appealing Jasmine (Kaylamay Suarez), she chooses the Queer Straight Alliance, anticipating negative feedback.

Meanwhile, in Alabama in 1965, blacks are organizing peaceful protests aimed at getting the vote. The spotlight is on Francine, a lovely young woman who catches the eye of Bobby, a white guy from New York who came south to join the freedom fight.

Director Karen Altree Piemme does a great job coordinating the intertwining action, and the performers are strong, both with the anthemic, political tunes (“Freedom Is a-Coming,” “March with the Aid of the Lord”) and touching ballads (“I Don’t Count,” “Hello Grandma”).

The writers give all of the actors a moment to shine, and they do: Nandi Drayton blooms as Franki, Nicolas Bearde and Dana Lewenthal find lovely nuances in mom and dad, Caleb Meyers admirably plays the kid brother with restraint, and Amanda King is sassy, wise and supportive as Grandma.

In the most traditionally romantic portions of the show, Janelle Lasalle as Francine and Joshua Marx as Bobby have a nice spark.

A large, equally talented ensemble (as protesters, church choir members. schoolmates) rounds out the effervescent cast.

The one distracting thing about “Bridges” is an overly busy scenic design. Huge bridge-like structures, on which images of real news events are projected, don’t add all that much, and choppy set changes (beds, furniture and crosses being rolled across the stage a lot) hamper the action.

REVIEW

Bridges: A New Musical
Presented by Berkeley Playhouse
Where: Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 26 and March 3-4; 1 and 6 p.m. Feb. 27 and March 5, noon March 6
Tickets: $23 to $60
Contact: (510) 845-8542, ext. 351, www.berkeleyplayhouse.org

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