Calypso Rose musical: A story for the world to discover

Stacey Sobers, centre, plays Calypso Rose in Queen of The Road – The Calypso Rose Musical, staged at the Central Bank Auditorium, Port of Spain, May 10-12. - Photo courtesy Carlyle Morris
Stacey Sobers, centre, plays Calypso Rose in Queen of The Road – The Calypso Rose Musical, staged at the Central Bank Auditorium, Port of Spain, May 10-12. - Photo courtesy Carlyle Morris


Yes Productions, this past Mother’s Day weekend, presented Queen of the Road: The Calypso Rose Musical to a packed house at the Central Bank Auditorium, delivering another example of national theatre grounded in the ethos of Carnival, and in this case, thankfully, elevated above the many examples of low production value and “uneven quality” of Best Village drama.

It was an evening of light entertainment in which the musical biography runs counter to the hyper-produced West End or Broadway experience like Tina –The Tina Turner Musical or Get Up, Stand Up, The Bob Marley Musical, but follows a local path defined previously by director and playwright Rhoma Spencer’s own Bassman (Shadow) in 1995, and later by Zeno Constance’s The Road Make To Walk (Lord Kitchener) in 2003.

The musical had been in development for a while, and advanced significantly at the University of Toronto as part of Spencer’s 2022-23 artist-in-residence term at the Queer and Trans Research Lab there. According to the lab’s website, “Spencer had been working since 2019 on a jukebox musical based on the life of queer Caribbean icon and ‘undisputed Calypso Queen of the world,’ Linda McCartha Monica Sandy-Lewis, popularly known as Calypso Rose.” The jukebox musical in four acts tries, within the scope and breadth of just over 40 calypsoes by Rose, to elaborate on her life, career growth and development.

Aunt Edith (Karen Francisco, second left, takes Young Rose (Thara Howe) to meet the owners of the Original Young Brigade Tent. Left is Piggy (Fabrice Barker) and right is Mr Spile (Kurtis Gross). - Photo courtesy Carlyle Morris

Spencer says the Best Village model was her preferred model for this musical: “I make no apology for situating (the production) in the original Trinbago Musical Theatre style – Best Village.”
She has said previously that, “The Best Village competition was called ‘illegitimate theatre,'" but that she “continued to crave the illegitimacy, a feeling that has inspired her whole career.”
It worked here, with effective production and direction making song, dance, actress, and story gel smartly. Rose’s story, from childhood to adult, is told as a flashback sequence as she won the Victoire de la Musique award in 2017, the French equivalent to the Grammy.

The descriptive above, “light entertainment,” does not eschew the fact that the musical covers important facets of Rose’s life and career that resonate still today. Act I touches on the family dynamics of the rural, ultra-religious family with many offspring. Rose was from a family of 13 brothers and sisters, and was obligingly “adopted” by her uncle and aunt in Trinidad, to ease the tension.
Her lifelong connection to her Spiritual Baptist grandmother, in the flesh and later in spirit, guides Rose’s growth and is a notable constant throughout the musical. Young actress Thara Howe takes on the role of pre-teen Rose with admirable confidence and ability, and succeeds in upstaging everyone with her excellent stagecraft, hopefully, to be seen in future productions.

Act II sees a young adult Calypso Rose (Stacey Sobers) at the Original Young Brigade Tent led by the Mighty Sparrow (Kearn Samuel) dealing with the misogyny and oft-expected hypersexuality of the machismo culture of calypso in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when her career began to blossom.
Her musical pushback via wickedly double-entendre calypsoes like Banana and Sweet Pudding Man (1968), and Palet (1969) – the sweetness, and give and take of orality – came at a price, as she was labelled by the church, women’s groups and the local newspapers of the time as the “Queen of Slackness” and “Queen of Smut.”
Her sexuality was challenged in this era too, with Sparrow and others questioning “why she don’t have a man.”
Coy, prissy or faint-hearted were not adjectives to describe Rose in this period. She knew what she wanted, and demanded it. Respect was earned.

Calypso Rose (Stacey Sobers) confronts a disapproving Sparrow (Kearn Samuel). - Photo courtesy Carlyle Morris

Stacey Sobers is a revelation as an actor. Already known as a singer and calypsonian – 2018 National Women’s Action Committee (NWAC) National calypso queen and NCC Calypso Monarch finalist – she embodies Rose’s Tobago accent and stutter, and her body language effectively. Gordon Rohlehr wrote in 2004 that “Rose’s prolonged wailing mode of delivery, a possible inheritance from her Spiritual Baptist/Shouter roots, has now become the signature style of a significant number of current female soca singers.”
That timbre and performance style are replicated almost to perfection.

Act II sees Rose’s rise to the top with Road March and Calypso Monarch wins in the mid-to-late 1970s effectively ending the Sparrow-Kitchener dyad that ruled calypso at the time. That resulted in jealousy, and migration to greener pastures up the islands, as she now had to navigate not only the narrow silo of a Carnival season, but the increased hostility towards her dominance over a significant number of male calypsonians.

Her connection to Belize, Andy Palacio and Garifuna culture, including punta, are explored, and that Belizean connection would prove fortunate, as her 2017 comeback award-winning album Far From Home would be produced by Belize-based producer Ivan Duran.

Act IV, set in the 2010s, 30 years after Act III, sees her embrace by the world and especially the French, towards relative calypso immortality that sees the decline of those major calypsonians who started their careers in the 1960s-70s.
The musical exposes the wide oeuvre of Calypso Rose, and challenged the audience to recognise that there is more to Rose than Fire in Your Wire. Rose is a Caribbean Queen. The ease of the sing-along to a few calypsoes was a plus. Audiences should listen to our calypsonians’ canon in full to give an earned response. One step at a time.

Dancers and cast portray Belizean masqueraders as Calypso Rose (Stacey Sobers) and Andy (Kearn Samuel) perform in the Belizean Carnival. - Photo courtesy Carlyle Morris

The musical accompaniment, directed by Michelle Henry was excellent, with optimum sound reinforcement that made the Central Bank Auditorium an apt calypso tent without jarring volumes. The technical aspect of the musical were handled with slickness that showed an improvement over reported opening night issues. Blocking and movement on the stage, up and down and expanded into the aisles of the auditorium, and the set design – including projection screens as backgrounds that established Rose’s Tobago home, her Trinidad home, and the wider space for school, the Original Young Brigade calypso tent, the yard, and performance stages in France and Coachella Festival – gave the musical a lift above the memories of the simple folk theatre of yesteryear.

Ovations were given to the two Rose leads, and deservedly so.
This play can and should be workshopped to iron out the kinks in production, and to enhance the quality of singing so necessary for any musical. Local validation is secure, and one assumes that this is a story for the world to discover.
Queen of the Road: The Calypso Rose Musical, is an example of the style and quality of play, and by extension, calypso musical that can become a trope that makes sense in our creative industries, as it looks outward for validation and commercial expansion.


"Calypso Rose musical: A story for the world to discover"

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