In the Key of Life: The Genius of Stevie Wonder

“Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes, doesn’t mean he lacks vision.” Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder (Stevland Hardaway Morris 1950-) has had a career spanning six decades. His music earned 25 Grammy Awards and induction into multiple halls of fame. The remarkable artist’s work provides soundtracks to millions of lives. This show’s host and creator, Darius de Haas, sees Wonder’s oeuvre as a reflection of love, spirituality, humanity, and political justice; a force of “energy and synergy.” With three accomplished vocalists, he takes us through the years adding context to artistic changes. The show is visually fun; its cast moving in spirited Motown-type unison. De Haas himself, replete in glitter boots, puppeted by rhythm, is sinuous and funky.

Richard Baskin, Jr., J. Hoard, Darius de Haas, Helen White

“Uptight – Everything’s All Right” (Wonder/Henry Cosby/Silvia May) marked the honoree’s first collaboration. Feet tap, heads bob, the audience remembers. “We were coming out of the tumultuous sixties, mourning (Martin Luther King and Vietnam) and angry. No longer called Little Stevie Wonder, the artist found new colors, new sounds…” De Haas says. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” (Wonder/ Lee Garrett/Lula Mae Hardaway/Syreeta Wright) arrives like a gospel ballad carried on organ-sounding synthesizer, then, whomp! becomes the pulsing version we know. Our host gets rid of the microphone stand – to sashay across the stage.

“Don’t Worry ‘Bout a Thing” (Wonder) finds two vocalists at either side. De Haas shakes his finger at us. Step, turn, one, two, three, then shimmy. Voices meld. Wonder was producing an album a year, then went silent. Motown had lost confidence when “Songs in the Key of Life” was released. “It’s considered by many to be his magnum opus.” His own “I Wish” riding resonant bass thrum, delivers too much sound to make out lyrics. De Haas pumps his arm, kicks, skips, bends. From here on, it’s all Wonder songs.

J. Hoard, Kola Rai, Richard Baskin, Jr., Helen White

A silken “Isn’t She Lovely” gently bounces and sways; its last verse hypnotically repeating, repeating, repeating. “Living for the City” punches out. “Superstition” is about those who want to keep you down. “Today vitriol is directed at so many groups of people. The thing we have to remember is that we’ve been here before…these are lessons we should’ve learned,” De Haas declares evangelically. When Wonder writes about social ills, “he’s making good trouble.”

“Pastime Paradise” with De Haas and the ladies, sums it up: “Dissipation/Of race relations/ Consolation/ Segregation/Dispensation/Isolation/Exploitation/Mutilation/Mutation/Miscreation/Confirmation to the evils of the world…” At the piano and synth, Henry Hay shifts shoulders, shakes his head, bites his lip, scrunches his eyes…looks up and grooves. Each of the talented back-up singers has a solo. When De Haas claps, we clap.

Darius de Haas, Helen White

“Stevie takes us to higher ground in all respects,” the host notes. “He started exploring the complexities of love, expressing new sensitivity.” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” seems more meaningful with only piano accompaniment. De Haas ends on high tenor. A tender “Too Shy To Say” wafts hand in hand with guitar. “All in Love is Fair” and “If It’s Magic” are just beautiful.

The script is good, but the program runs long. Perhaps if De Haas left out some of his own point of view, it might come in at the advertised 90 minutes.

Kenneth L. Robertson’s direction and uncredited choreography are terrific. The stage is aesthetically used, movement appealing and infectious.

Helen White, Kola Rai, Darius de Haas, J. Hoard, Richard Baskin, Jr.

Elaborate projection design (Kylee Loera), though smart looking, is unfortunately animated, distracting from what’s on stage.

Arrangements by Henry Hey are buoyant with several familiar songs morphing into unusual, appealing ballads. Vocal arrangements (Richard Baskin, Jr.) are first rate.

Performance Photos: Richard Termine
Opening: Stevie Wonder – Public Domain

92Y Lyrics and Lyricists presents
In the Key of Life: The Genius of Stevie Wonder
Conceived, Written Performed by Darius de Haas
Directed by Kenneth L. Robertson
Arrangements/Piano/Music Direction – Henry Hey
Vocalists Richard Baskin, Jr., J. Hoard, Kola Rai, Helen White

Programs at the 92Y (at Lexington Avenue)

About Alix Cohen (1686 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.