By Daniel Skora
If you’re not already a jazz fan, you can’t help but have some of Frank Boyd’s enthusiasm for the music rub off on you. Boyd is creator and writer of his one-man show “The Holler Sessions”, currently being presented by Detroit Public Theatre. Boyd plays Ray, a disc jockey working out of a Kansas City radio station who lives and breathes jazz in all its manifestations. To say Ray is a fanatic is an understatement. He’s high priest, prophet, oracle, diviner, and ringmaster, lathering up the airways with praise and unbridled devotion to the music that’s acknowledged to be America’s only truly original musical form.
When we first see Ray, he’s curled up on the floor beneath his workstation at the studio, a pillow for his head and naught else to call the place home. But he’s surrounded by everything that’s both important to him and necessary to fulfill his mission. Records and CD’s proliferate, photos of his heroes cover the walls, a coffee pot stands ready to clear the cobwebs, and the microphone that allows him to share his passion with his fans awaits Ray’s imminent approach.
Most of “The Holler Sessions” is taken up by Ray’s live radio broadcast. He plays music, of course, cuts from Jazz greats like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and Nina Simone. There are stories to tell, stories that smack of predestination, like how a young black kid born into poverty in the deep South just happened to covet a trumpet at a very young age and grew up to be the great Louis Armstrong. There’s an interview, with Ray playing both sides of a hip conversation with a raspy-voiced Miles Davis. There are phone-ins and commentaries and the commission of a disk jockey’s cardinal sin when Ray allows “dead air” to let the emotional facets of the music he’s just played sink in with his listeners.
Ray’s/Boyd’s fervor and frenzy for his passion are infectious. If you have long considered jazz to be only a musician’s music, you will not leave this show without a modicum of curiosity for what you’ve been missing. Boyd’s performance has what you’d expect from every live performer and don’t always get: talent, fearlessness, and total immersion in the part being played.
If you’re wondering how a radio broadcast can do almost 90 minutes as a stage production, it’s because “The Holler Sessions” is highly visual. We see Ray grooving to the beat of the music, destroying the set while rummaging for an old copy of Rolling Stone, and doing his darndest to keep you focused with props like a pair of sunglasses, the stogie he jams into his mouth, and his bottle of Jack Daniels.
Is the show perfect? No. It takes a stab at some audience participation where they’re invited to call in on their cell phones to answer questions and win a (fictitious) prize. Handing even a little part of your show over to amateurs can often produce awkward and deflating results. Ray also makes several digressions from the task at hand, playing a cut from a James Taylor song as part of a “folk scare” and commenting on headlines from a copy of USA Today.
“The Holler Sessions” may be a slightly different kind of theatre than you’ve usually come to expect, but it’s an exciting and entertaining show nonetheless. Besides the truly awesome performance of Frank Boyd, it’s got spunk and true grit and may very well send you to the record stacks to check out this kind of music for yourself.
Consulting directors for the show are Rachel Chavkin and Josh Aaseng. Set and lighting design are by Eric Southern. Sound design (and you would be correct if you expected a venue that houses the Detroit Symphony to have a great sound system) is by Matt Hubbs while Nan Luchini fills the role of stage manager.
“The Holler Sessions” runs through February 26th. Tickets are available online at www.detroitpublictheatre.org, by phone at 313.576.5111, and in person at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra box office. Performances of Detroit Public Theatre take place at the Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall inside the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center located at 3711 Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit.