'Two Queens, One Castle': Behind an Emotional Moat

By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, January 24, 2006; C01

There is plenty to recommend above the nagging undercurrent in "Two Queens, One Castle," the musical about an unconventional romantic triangle. A three-piece band churns out bright melodies and tight rhythms, Patdro Harris's dramatic choreography fills the small MetroStage theater with energy, and the production by director Thomas W. Jones II has a seething air and alluringly slick surface.

The tricky thing seems to be how to handle the show's salacious topic, one that singer and co-creator Jevetta Steele lived through: a husband who says he is heterosexual but who cheats on his wife with a man. In Steele's case, her husband was infected with HIV. They had two children together and her "down-low" husband was the only man she had ever known, so naturally, her world fell apart.

It's not the kind of thing that typically makes someone want to sing, and indeed the musical, with book and lyrics by Steele and Jones, opens with a character generically called Wife wailing full-voiced to the audience, "So you wanna know about my life." As Wife, Felicia Curry -- who has a touch of Angela Bassett about her, including the high forehead, swept-back hair and fierce gaze -- duly sets an angry, regretful tone.

The production, which opened this past weekend, thrives as Jones and Steele establish the territory, moving fast as Curry's character meets and marries the elegant man who will betray her. (TC Carson is extremely suave in the part and a delight vocally.) Songs by William Hubbard (also the musical director and keyboardist) and J.D. Steele (Jevetta's brother) tear through the styles -- R&B, torch ballads, sinister funk, flat-out gospel -- while Jones and Harris keep the cast of six in perpetual motion.

Three mirrored panels at the back of Daniel Conway's clever set swing like revolving doors. John Burkland's lighting design frequently catches the Wife's mother, the Husband's lover and other characters behind those mirrors and then lets them fade into the dark. It's an attractive, secretive world.

Jones gets crisp performances from his cast, which includes Gary E. Vincent as the Lover and Tracy McMullan, Monique Paulwell and Roz White Gonsalves as an active chorus. Everyone looks snappy in Jim McFarland's stylish costumes, which help establish time and place as the Wife's career takes off and the scenes move from church to recording studios to her home.

Curry's singing sometimes opts for power over pitch and tone, and although Jones allows her to overdo a poignant moment, it's hard not to respond to Curry's vulnerability and spunk. Carson -- one overlong note excepted -- displays a mellow baritone, an easy falsetto and Al Jarreau-style scatting, all without breaking a sweat.

But do either of those performers have a real character to play? You don't buy it for a second when the Husband gets discovered and turns violent, and the complexities Jones and Steele raise aren't clearly explored. Issues are acknowledged in song, from an unspoken "don't ask, don't tell" policy that hangs over many gay black men to the anguished self-questioning not just of the Wife, but also of a chorus of Wives. A certain hot-button intensity is consistent but doesn't adhere to the characters.

That's what nags, especially given how close to the bone the story is for Steele, who sang the haunting, Oscar-nominated "Calling You" from the 1987 movie "Bagdad Cafe." Too quickly, the musical settles for broad statements ("I Ain't Supposed to Be Here") and self-help uplift. Unsure of how particular they want to be, Steele and Jones end up with a really punchy outline.

Two Queens, One Castle, book and lyrics by Jevetta Steele and Thomas W. Jones II, music by William Hubbard and J.D. Steele. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Through March 5 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.