“Cause you got (personality), Walk, (with personality) Talk, (with personality) Smile, (with personality) Charm…”
It’s been two days and I can’t get this song out of my head! In fact, all the songs from “Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical” playing at the Studebaker Theater are on a constant mental playlist. Tunes like “Personality,” “Stagger Lee,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and “Mailman Blues” get a new lease on life thanks to the more-than-capable vocal talents in this production.
“Personality” is based on the life of famed singer Lloyd Price, one of those names that you may not have heard of, but with whose music you are no doubt familiar. You may not have heard of Price because he never descended into the trap of drugs, sex and overdose that make other celebrities household names. “I never did drugs,” says Broadway veteran Saint Aubyn, playing Price during an introduction to the show, “I just want to make that clear!” B. Jeffrey Madoff, who wrote the book for the show, conducted extensive interviews with Price, who only passed away in May of 2021 (born March 1933), so we’ll take this Lloyd Price at his word.
The show is split into two acts, the first recounting the rise of young Lloyd Price (Darian Peer) to stardom and the second telling of the even further rise to stardom by mature Lloyd Price (Aubyn). That’s not to say Price doesn’t face hardships—drafted into the Korean War, Jim Crow, a failed marriage to wife Emma (Alexandria Reese)—but Price navigates them adeptly, thanks to the help of his agent and business partner, Harold Logan (Stanley Wayne Mathis), a gambler and pimp who has no problem shooting a man in cold blood, but always makes sure that Price gets a fair deal.
The first act relies on standard storytelling to move the plot along. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Young Price is a teenage prodigy who just happens to be singing and plucking chords on a piano as music agent Dave (Donterrio) happens to be strolling by. After hearing a few notes, Dave signs him on the spot! Later, in a music studio, a bashful Price meets big-time producer Art Rupe (Josh Houghton), who is unimpressed at first; but as Price slowly gains confidence, he cuts loose, eliciting the dramatically slow turn of Rupe’s head. Sure, we’ve seen it before, but not with the silky-smooth singing of Peer, whose cherubic appearance, amiable nature and slight nasal twang are so lovable that you can’t help but root for him.
The second act uses the many accomplishments of mature Price—nightclub owner, an appearance on Ed Sullivan, his own television show—as launchpads for high-octane musical performances. These numbers are magical, featuring an ensemble that sings while dancing the Lindy Hop. No lie, there were moments when I forgot that I was watching a play and not an actual concert. Aubyn’s vocal range is impressive. If this were a Hollywood movie, glasses would be shattering when he sustains a note so high that it is just short of outer space.
A fun element are the cameos by famous musicians—Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sam Cooke—played by the ensemble pulling double duty. There is always a sense of “who’s going to pop up next?” Scenic design by David Gallo and Viveca Gardiner and lighting design by Jeff Croiter do an admirable job of making a static set transform into everything from a seedy office to a concert arena.
“Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical” ends on a high note, figuratively and literally, and will have you humming Price’s tunes long after it’s over. The soundtrack that sticks with you is a bonus worth the price of admission alone.
“Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical” at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building, 410 South Michigan. Tickets are $53-$127, fineartsbuilding.com. Through September 3.