‘Hotter Than July: Stevie Wonder’ sings songs in the key of our lives

The Signature Theatre cabaret was lit, the energy was amped, and shared experience was affirmed.

Rochelle Rice is the stellar female vocalist in the group Mark G. Meadows & The Movement featuring Rochelle Rice and Solomon Parker, which is now performing Hotter Than July: Stevie Wonder as part of the Signature Theatre cabaret series.

Rochelle Rice in ‘Hotter Than July: Stevie Wonder’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by James Gardiner.

The thing that Rice does when she sings anything is — she trusts. She trusts the material and she trusts the audience to go with her on the journey the material offers. Stevie Wonder’s song Lately gives voice to the approaching terror and anticipatory grief of someone who is beginning to notice and piece together evidence that a relationship they thought would last may not last after all. Rice sang the song early in the program. When she voiced the words “Far more frequently you’re wearing perfume with, you say, no special place to go,” the audience began talking back to her, affirming their shared experience, the accuracy of her delivery/testimony of it, and their willingness to ride the waves of this song to see what the end would be. As Rice said several times throughout the evening, checking in with the audience: “Amen?”

Amen, indeed.

This show is filled with many potentially wonderful moments like this. Unfortunately, at least at the performance I attended, the sound was unbalanced. I sat right near the stage, and when the voices were a capella or accompanied by only one instrument, I could hear the voices and the lyrics very well. But when the instruments and the vocalists (Solomon Parker III is the Baritenor in the show) were performing simultaneously, the voices were swallowed by the instruments. As the person I was sharing a table with said, “It became a contest of who could be louder: and we lost the music.”

All of the personnel are disciplined and creative performers with extensive résumés. Individually and collectively they continually surprise with their inventiveness. Meadows, who is the director of Signature Cabarets, conceived this show. He brought to our attention the fact that Stevie Wonder’s music has underscored the lives of at least three generations of human beings on the planet. (Paul Simon jokingly noted his gratitude to Wonder for not putting out an album one year, thus allowing Simon to acquire an Album of the Year Grammy that year.) There are songs in this show that you will recognize and there will be some that you won’t recognize. But you are sure to find something here that marked a certain point in your life, both personal and political.

Mark G. Meadows in ‘Hotter Than July: Stevie Wonder’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by James Gardiner.

On the more personal side of things, the universally recognized and embraced Isn’t She Lovely was performed in recognition of the presence of three new/newish fathers in the group (the sleepless daddies club included Drummer Dante’ Pope, Bassist Eliot Seppa, and Meadows himself). Papa Pope passionately led the vocals on this piece from behind his drum kit. The more reticent Seppa was persuaded to sing a phrase of the song to the approval and support of the audience. One father in the audience shouted out in encouragement, “It gets better.”

Meadows talked about his own newborn being wide awake and contented between 3:00 and 5:00 am., giving rise eventually to Meadows’ laid-back, soothing, and mellow version of Wonder’s Uptight. The original is an exuberant declaration of how young love can provide just the fuel you need to press on through all the obstacles the world presents you with. This version, with its gentle expression of play, joy, and gratitude, was delightful.

The group’s work on As If You Read My Mind was exhilarating, especially once Trey Sorrells began his solo, which then pushed the group into some highly interactive improvisational exchanges. (Sorrells is listed as sax, but he also played a number of wind instruments during the performance.) DeAnte Haggerty-Willis on guitar was consistently solid and engaging. Everybody onstage was lit and the energy was amped but structured.

The ‘Hotter Than July: Stevie Wonder’ ensemble: Trey Sorrells (Saxophone), Dante’ Pope (Percussion), Rochelle Rice (Vocalist), Mark G. Meadows (Vocalist/Keyboard), Solomon Parker III (Vocalist), DeAnte Haggerty-Willis (Guitar), and Eliot Seppa (Bass). Photo by James Gardiner.

Stevie Wonder was instrumental in getting national recognition and celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King. And his song Happy Birthday, which the group played near the end of the show, has served and continues to serve as a focus for the energy and encouragement of people who continue to fight for recognition and celebration of the presence and full humanity of Black people. There is the understanding in this song that recognizing the full humanity of Black people forces one’s own humanity to be more fully embraced and acknowledged.

Happy Birthday prepared the ground for a national envisioning of the possibility of embracing Black participation in the operation of this country and life in general. Who knows whether Barack Obama could have become President of the United States if this song hadn’t laid an underpinning of hope and determination? The group performs this piece with appropriate verve and energy, encouraging the audience’s participation both during this performance and out in the world.

Cause we all know in our mind
That there ought to be a time
That we can set aside…
In full remembrance
Of those who lived and died for the oneness of our people.

The show closes with Stevie Wonder’s statement of his own intent:

Gonna keep on trying
Till I reach the highest ground.

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Hotter Than July: Stevie Wonder plays through July 17, 2022, in the ARK at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets ($38), call (703) 820-9771 or purchase online.

Cast and creative team credits are here.

COVID Safety: Signature Theatre requires all audiences to provide proof of vaccination and wear a mask to attend all live public performances and events at indoor venues. Signature’s full COVID safety plans can be found here.


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