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Breath & Imagination at City Theatre 

A sterling cast tells the story, with music, of pioneering African-American baritone Roland Hayes.

Jubilant Sykes (with Kecia Lewis in the background) in City Theatre's Breath & Imagination.

Photo courtesy Hartford Stage/T. Charles Erickson

Jubilant Sykes (with Kecia Lewis in the background) in City Theatre's Breath & Imagination.

Would Breath & Imagination be such engaging musical theater without the massive talents of its three cast members? Jubilant Sykes, Kecia Lewis and Tom Frey fill the City Theatre mainstage with playwright Daniel Beaty's images and imaginings of pioneering singer Roland Hayes. The well matched trio have perfected their roles in this co-production (directed by Darko Tresnjak) with the Hartford Stage, where it received its world premiere at the start of the year.

Hayes' story is remarkable enough all by itself, and I slap myself for never having heard of him before. Born in 1877 into a tenant-farming family in Georgia, his mother a former slave, by the 1920s the gifted and trained vocalist was touring Europe, entertaining royalty. The first African American to achieve the musical and professional milestones that he did in both traditional spirituals and classical music, he fought to desegregate audiences and performances.

But whether a sharecropper farmboy or worldwide star, Hayes still faced racism and the indignities of Jim Crow. Central to the play is a real 1942 incident in a Georgia store; Hayes was beaten by police after protesting the treatment of his (offstage) wife and daughter for sitting in the "whites-only" section of the shoe department while shopping. Beaty takes various liberties with other biographical facts, but the truth of Hayes' greatness shines through.

Operatic baritone Sykes fills that role not only with his remarkable voice, but also some laudable acting chops as he goes from cute little boy to scrabbling young man to confident maturity: innocence, anger, ambition, rage, hope. Opposite him as his Angel Mo' (Hayes' name for his mother), Lewis displays a daunting vocal range and stage presence. The versatile Frey transforms himself — with discreet costume changes — into a supporting cast of friends, villains, men and one woman.

More music than dialogue, Breath & Imagination most aptly tells its story with a mix of selected spirituals and Beaty's original songs, sprinkled with classical pieces.

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