“Be Bop Baby,” Margo Hall’s tribute to her late, beloved stepfather, Motown musician Teddy Harris Jr. — a world premiere production by Z Space — is, coincidentally, the second presentational-style musical memoir by a daughter about a parent to appear locally. (The first, “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” about Mona Golabek’s Jewish, classical-pianist mother, a Kindertransport refugee during World War II, is running at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.)
In both cases, music trumps all.
Hall frames her memoir as a search through her stepfather’s belongings — in the basement of the Detroit home where she grew up — to find unpublished sheet music to present in a public tribute to him.
To her annoyance, her biological father (played with benign affability by Mujahid Abdul-Rashid) is hanging around — this is his house now.
Happy memories of a musical childhood permeate “Be Bop Baby,” which ended its short run last week. Producer-composer-arranger Harris worked with the likes of Aretha Franklin, the Paul Butterfield Band and more, and toured with such groups as the Supremes.
“In this basement, I was a star,” Hall reports, gleefully. To illustrate, she sings a dozen songs. The music — composed, arranged and orchestrated by Marcus Shelby, who conducts his full orchestra onstage — ranges from jazz to big band to Motown, including a medley of Supremes songs (with backup singers Dawn L. Troupe and Halili Knox).
Hall herself, a lovely singer and graceful stage presence, wrote the script (with Nakissa Etemad), all the lyrics and some of the music (one song was composed and arranged by the late Harris).
A full orchestra onstage for the slim theatrical piece is a gift. But the fairly prosaic lyrics, Hall’s narrative and even her acting fall short by contrast.
In that narrative, Hall hints at her anger toward her biological father, mentions her half-white, half-Indian grandmother’s refusal to open the door to brown-skinned little Margo, wonders whether she has the right to share Harris’ unheard compositions and comments on Harris’ arrest for “touching” a white man.
None of which is explored. Rather, with the focus on Harris himself — a worthy subject for a tribute but inevitably more important to Hall than to us — the script takes a lighter, feel-good approach.
Similarly, under Sheila Balter’s direction, Hall — an actor of great depth and sensitivity — tends to substitute amused chuckles for internal emotional connection. Hall hasn’t yet found a way to make this daughter-stepfather story as powerful and involving as it could, and should, be.