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Stumptown Stages to present world premiere on R&B

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Singing the songs written by Deborah Chessler, Sonny Til and The Orioles brought about the birth of the rhythm and blues genre of music.

The creative team of Michael Allen Harrison and Alan Berg is at it again. Following the success of their collaborative works “Crossing Over: A Musical Haggadah” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the duo, along with Janet Mouser, is nearing completion of “Soul Harmony,” a musical about Deborah Chessler, Sonny Til and The Orioles and the birth of rhythm and blues.

A musical scholar, Berg also is the rabbi of the Beit Haverim Jewish community in Lake Oswego. Inspired by “The Deborah Chessler Story,” an essay written by Greil Marcus, “Soul Harmony” is about the unlikely partnership between Chessler, a young Jewish woman, and a dynamic black male vocal group who launched a whole new genre of music.

Berg said the rise of Sonny Til and The Orioles in the late 1940s and early ’50s signaled a major change in American popular music taste. Until that time the charts were dominated by vocalists and the big bands of the day — like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. But by the end of the ’40s a new sound was catching on — street-corner harmony, or doo-wop.

The Vibranaires were a new group on the Baltimore scene, headed up by Earlington “Sonny” Tilghman, along with George Nelson, Alexander Sharp, Johnny Reed and Tommy Gaither. The group featured two lead singers, Sonny Til (he shortened his name) as lead tenor and George Nelson as second tenor, with the other members harmonizing. The only accompaniment in the early days was the solo guitar of Tommy Gaither. Their style was sweet harmony.

Chessler, who had started writing songs as a teenager, had built up her own following in Baltimore through hard work and determination. She was a songwriter whose songs you could actually hear on the radio. One evening she received a phone call from Abe Schaeffer, saying he had five guys who wanted him to manage them, he had made demos but didn’t know what to do with them. Could she help? Would she listen to them?

The Vibranaires sang over the telephone to Chessler. Their sound was exactly what Chessler heard in her head when she composed her songs.

The rest of the story — of how The Vibranaires became The Orioles and how they all succeeded with Chessler’s songwriting and management skills — is the basis of “Soul Harmony.” Berg and Janet Mouser took two years to write the script, which is a series of tableaus to accompany the songs. Berg points out that segregation was commonplace in America in the 1940s and early ’50s. Touring would have been difficult for the black group and made doubly so with a white female manager.

“What motivated them?” Berg said. “Where did they find that kind of courage? I am always fascinated by the more courageous moments. She told me ‘We did it because we all needed the money. Yes, we were all people who knew racism. We were a long, long way from home and just trying to survive.’”

As serendipity would have it, while doing research Berg came upon a YouTube video of Sonny Til and The Orioles singing “It’s Too Soon to Know” by Chessler (, with this post by De’Sean Dooley attached to it:

“It feels so wonderful to know that people really respect and love my granddad’s music. The crazy thing is that I think in this video he’s performing at the Apollo and I’ll soon be doing the same in March! I’ll make sure my father gets to see this. I’m sure it would make his day. ... Thank you very much!”

“Kurt (Mouser, Stumptown Stages’ artistic director) invited De’Sean to come out and audition for ‘Aida’ He knocked it out of the ballpark. And he hired him to be Sonny. He has also been a real assist on the script, proving an inside voice,” Berg said.

The production also stars Monica Rodrigues as Deborah Chessler and Julianne Johnson-Weiss appears as Ella Fitzgerald.

Stumptown Stages will present “Soul Harmony” April 17 through May 3 at Brunish Theatre in Antoinette Hatfield Hall, Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, 1111 S.W. Broadway in Portland. The production includes classic rhythm-and-blues songs by Chessler, plus original songs written by Michael Allen Harrison with lyrics by Berg, Janet Mouser and Harrison. The musical is directed by Kirk Mouser and Julianne Johnson-Weiss with musical direction by Harrison and choreography by Jehn Benson.

Tickets range in price from $29.65 to $38.65 and can be purchased online!purchasetickets/c504 or by calling 503-381-8686.

Contact Barb Randall at 503-636-1281 ext. 100 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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