SHIDA – Jeannette Bayardelle Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks
Venue: The Vaults, London
Performance Date: 13 September 2019
Reviewer: Alexia Anderson
The hit Off-Broadway musical SHIDA, a real-life tale of a young African-American girl’s ambitious dream of becoming a writer has arrived at The Vaults for its UK premiere. The hard-hitting solo musical explores family tragedy, drug and sexual abuse in a way that is both emotive and truly immersive.
SHIDA is written and performed by Award-winning American artist Jeannette Bayardelle (whose Broadway credits include Sister Act and The Color Purple) and beautifully explores the uplifting, yet at times, harrowing biographical story of her childhood best friend, Shida. While living in The Bronx during the 1990s Shida battles to defy the odds as she encounters great turmoil and tribulations on her journey to fulfil her dream.
Bayardelle flawlessly alternates between playing the key characters of Shida’s life, each being portrayed with admirable character-acting talent. Young Shida displays so much literary potential as her love of poems impresses all who are close to her. To ride the waves of Shida’s life with her is a truly inspiring and evocative journey.
Throughout the 75-minute running time, we meet Shida’s mother, lover, boyfriends, girlfriends, teacher and best friend. It’s difficult to envisage how possible it would be to engage with and relate to all the characters in a one-person cast. To have a performer constantly switch between roles could run the risk of becoming distracting or evoke a weaker emotional connection. Thankfully though, any reservation is quickly dispelled by Bayardelle’s ability to live and breathe every moment of each of her characters.
She cleverly uses the breaking of the fourth wall to further create a personal relationship with the audience. Being able to admire the performing talent alongside feeling like you have been given a window into Bayardelle’s personality is a refreshing mix of theatrical techniques that are rarely seen in musical theatre.
With a limited set and only a small stage to manipulate, space and props are minimal. Bayardelle uses them effectively which provides a stripped-back and intimate performance which is emotionally raw and narratively gripping. It also demonstrates that the bright lights, sequins and big ensemble numbers are not a prerequisite to enjoy or define musical theatre.
Musical Director Noam Galperin leads the four-piece band, which is set upstage in silhouette. The heady mix of rock, jazz, rap, R&B and gospel music makes for an exhilarating extravaganza and perfectly transports the audience to the era.
Bayardelle’s vocal range and talent in all these genres is impressive and uses different vocal styles and techniques to help in the effective portrayal of different characters. Assigning different music styles to the various characters not only creates a musically-exciting experience but also cleverly aides the ability to comprehend which character is being depicted.
Managing her own on-stage costume changes and water-break would perhaps worry most when thinking about how this affects the believability of the performance. This by no means takes away the credibility of Bayardelle’s performance, despite it being an unconventional choice. In fact, this adds to the success of the aforementioned breaking of the fourth wall technique.
The second half of this one-act show brings the stand-out musical number What Kind of God? Bayardelle gives her soul to this piece of music, which has been beautifully crafted to show the depths of despair and the anger she faces in times of great difficulty and sadness.
Performed in a theatre famed for hosting alternative arts, the disused railway tunnels and arches that make up the theatre certainly make for a unique venue. The setup and size of the rooms encourage immersive theatre which allows for a captivating audience experience. It does feel a little too informal at times particularly before the start of the performance, with some crew still setting up. However, once the lights go down and Bayardelle enters via the middle aisle, immersion into the performance is immediate and any initial concerns are quickly forgotten.
Directed by Tony Award-winning producer Andy Sandberg, the performance, music and narrative effortlessly flow throughout. Already winner of the AUDELCO Award for Outstanding Solo Performance for SHIDA, Bayardelle faultlessly depicts the emotional rawness and relatability of Shida’s story. An undeniably breath-taking, sensational individual performance set against a beautiful score and inspiring story, SHIDA is a must-see.
Runs until: 13th October 2019