The child in front of us was rapt, leaning forward in her seat throughout the show, which starts with the entry of African griots pushing trunks that roll like wheelbarrows. Eventually the entire 15-member company is onstage, indulging in a bit of a cappella singing redolent of Ladysmith Black Mombassa, dancing and culminating in the rousing “Tell the Story,” which suggests that the primacy of the well-known fairy tale may lie in Africa, not China and thence to Europe where it was popularized by Hans Christian Andersen.
In brief, King Nat (P.L. Brown) insists that his daughter, Princess Quelie (Sabrina Sloan) marry an adoring but boring suitor. Quelie, who has other ideas, takes off for the Prince-marrying and dance contests in a neighboring kingdom, followed by her orphaned and duplicitous cousin Hena (Jennifer Leigh Warren), who wants Prince Gallant (so-handsome Josh Tower) for herself so she can be featured in African People magazine. Eventually she falls for Gallant’s cousin Rolin, played by the one-named gospel singer Tonex, who was such a hit in “Dreamgirls” earlier this year. Most of Tonex’s songs lie disappointingly low in his voice (there’s one dynamite duet with Warren, “Get It”). However, he gets the show’s final number, “Partay,” in which he gets to show off the full range of his pipes, much to the audience’s excitement.
Sylvia MacCalla, Angela Wildflower Polk and Angela Teek play unalike triplets, Quelie’s competitors, and get a super number titled “Ain’t Gonna Wait Around No More.” The Epilogue thrillingly returns us full circle to a cappella and the entire company singing “Do You Believe in Fairy Tales?”
Additional vocal fireworks are provided by the big daddy kings, Brown and Broadway star Ken Prymus, and by Tony Award-winner Lillias White as Gallant’s overprotective mama, Queen Zauba. Her 11th hour “My Only Son” brings the audience to its goose-bump knees and puts tears in mothers’ eyes as they recall letting go of their grown sons.
Childs’ book revels in its own goofiness, one of its charms, but there are a few extraneous plot lines that might be cut, making for a tighter tale. As is, it’s an assured, enjoyable, impressive, exuberant evening of music and merry-making, not to mention good, old-fashioned romance times three.
Jim Vukovich, music director and conductor, collaborated with composer Chuckerman on music arrangements and orchestrations. Sets are credited to Beowulf Boritt and lighting to Jennifer Setlow. Missy Bradstreet did the wigs.
“The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea” continues at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 21 at the Lyceum Stage, San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego.
For tickets and information, visit www.sandiegorep.com or call (619) 544-1000.