Melody tops story in ‘Be Bop Baby’

Courtesy photoAcclaimed Bay Area actress Margo Hall paid tribute to her stepfather

“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as a search through her stepfather’s belongings — in the basement of the Detroit home where she grew up — to find unpublished sheet music to present in a public tribute to him.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.

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