A cynic might say that charismatic Twin Cities showman T. Mychael Rambo is milking his moment. In July, Rambo was carjacked, pistol-whipped and left with a concussion. It brought an outpouring of support, including a GoFundMe campaign to help with medical bills.
Maybe the traumatic experience quickened an appreciation in his fans. It has certainly sharpened his own gratitude for life. And with a new show, both Rambo and his audience have reasons to smile.
In “Present,” a brisk 75-minute one-act of music and vignettes that premiered over the weekend at the Illusion Theater, Rambo sings some of his favorite tunes interspersed with stories from his experience. There’s a reflective quality to the evening, staged without fuss by Illusion co-founder Michael Robins.
“Present” telescopes his life from the family seat in Rambo, Texas, named for his forebears, to the drug treatment program that brought him to Minnesota 30 years ago to the grace he has experienced in his adopted home state.
He certainly gives us a flash of his life in “Present,” and it’s far from dire or elegiac.
The show opens with Rambo’s most recognizable quality: his voice. As pianist Roberta Carlson begins playing on a set depicting seven phases of the moon, we hear his smooth and mellifluous baritone from backstage. When he emerges, the excitement is palpable.
The first song, “Up Above My Head,” a gospel number by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, serves as a kind of invocation: “I hear music in the air, up above my head.” The evening closes with a mashup of songs that amount to an offertory of friendship: Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Lean on Me” by contemporary gospel star Kirk Franklin and the same-titled tune by soul icon Bill Withers.
In between, we see glimpses of the irrepressible charm and optimism Rambo has deployed to overcome the vicissitudes of life, including homelessness. Ultimately, the show celebrates both his artistry and his victory over circumstances.
Carlson is a lyrical accompanist who goes there with Rambo, rocking and swinging, though at times the show calls out for a rhythm section — something the clap-along audience helped with.
Rambo surprises with his musical selections, including “Defying Gravity,” the anthem of green-skinned outcast Elphaba in “Wicked,” and a theme song for underdogs everywhere. Although his voice sounded a bit rough, Rambo’s charm was winning and his joy contagious on a tune well-suited to a performer who, against odds, has resisted bitterness and made beautiful art.
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