The DCPA found this show during a virtual performance as the pandemic raged. Now it’s getting a full staging

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2min 15sec
Courtesy McLeod Creative/DCPA
Sheryl McCallum performs in “Miss Rhythm” at the DCPA’s Garner Galleria.

During the pandemic shutdown, a pair of Colorado artists created a cabaret show about legendary R&B singer Ruth Brown. Now, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts has helped them develop it into a fully produced show.

Written by and starring David Nehls and Sheryl McCallum — “Miss Rhythm —The Legend of Ruth Brown” began at Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden as a streaming cabaret during the pandemic.

The Denver Center For The Performing Arts found it and brought it to the Garner Galleria for a two-week run last summer. After its success, the DCPA invested in the show and the team to mount it as a fully produced show exploring Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Tony Award winner, Grammy winner, and R&B legend Ruth Brown's life with a five-piece jazz ensemble.

McCallum said she gives credit to director Kenny Moten for helping bring this version to life. 

“We couldn't have gotten a better director to helm this, to have his vision. We knew we wanted it elevated,” McCallum said. “I think he pushed everyone else to go beyond what the [Garner] Galleria [at the DCPA] is used to or has done and just elevate them all to create this atmosphere. And I was blown away. I knew it would be something that they haven't quite done like that before.”

Nehls said he knew during their first workshop that the pair had struck gold with Moten as their director. 

“When we constructed the … section going from “Hello Little Boy” into “So Long,” that was when I knew, because the way he crafted that whole moment and made this — and I don't wanna give it away — but it's a very surprisingly dramatic moment now in the play.”

Moten says he was excited to helm the show's expansion because he loves McCallum and the storytelling. 

“So in that first meeting, David and Sheryl just let me dream big with a lot of different ideas. And, they were just so gracious to be willing to try any and everything that came out of that first meeting,” Moten said.

The moment that stuck out to Moten for special treatment was when Ruth tells the story about being on the side of the road in the South. 

“There were certain things that played in my head in a very different way, and that moment in the show really became its own separate piece. And from that moment we really started to build out the rest of this new iteration,” Moten said.  “We knew that we could use a little more of underscoring in some of the dialogue. We knew we could play a little more back and forth with having those musicians speak. So that moment in the show stands out because I think that's when we all gelled in making “Miss Rhythm — The legend of Ruth Brown” as you know it today.”

Moten acknowledges that there are elements of this production that owe a hat tip to Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, a show that features the music of Billie Holiday. 

“As I was approaching it, it was in the back of my mind, but what I loved about what Sheryl and David did with the piece was not having Sheryl play Ruth Brown, but be able to hop back and forth as Ruth and as herself. And that little piece is what I think gives it a different vibe than Lady Day,” Moten said. “But Lady Day was definitely in the back of my mind when we started this process. One of the things about that show I love is that once you take off on the rocket ship with Lady Day, you're on it. And one similarity to “Miss Rhythm” is that once Sheryl starts the show, you're on the ride until it's over. And that definitely came from Lady Day.”

”Miss Rhythm – The Legend of Ruth Brown” plays at the DCPA’s Garner Galleria through October 15.

Editor’s Note: Denver Center Attractions is a financial supporter of CPR, but has no editorial influence.