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The music of 'Mahalia: A Gospel Musical' sings, but the production does not

By Celia Wren
Thursday, January 28, 2010; C09

"Mahalia: A Gospel Musical," at Alexandria's MetroStage, resembles a handful of precious gems lovingly displayed in an empty tissue box. This theatrical biography of iconic gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) showcases performers with enough charisma and vocal and acting prowess to send a shiver through the walls of some latter-day Jericho. The many musical numbers, which brim with emotion and cultural significance, are so rousing that theatergoers at a weekend performance couldn't help clapping in time to the beat. But the package that enfolds these assets -- the book by Tom Stolz -- is so unimaginative, perfunctory and overlong that it saps the show of resonance and zest.

Such, at least, is the overriding impression from the current 2 1/2 -hour production, directed by Thomas W. Jones II. MetroStage mounted a previous production of "Mahalia," directed by the late Carol Mitchell Leon but featuring the same cast, in 2004. That version -- not seen by this reviewer -- won Bernardine Mitchell a Helen Hayes Award for her portrayal of Jackson, and earned William F. Hubbard an award nomination for his portraits of Thomas A. Dorsey (known as the father of gospel music) and other supporting characters.

Six years later, those performers -- and the third cast member, the terrific S. Renee Clark -- are still letting their light shine. As she puts across favorites such as "Elijah Rock" and "Dig a Little Deeper," Mitchell gently shimmies in apparent exultation (Jackson had the faith to match her chosen musical genre), and the actress's expressive voice boasts a lapidary gleam. The performer also displays comic aplomb and a nice sense of timing in quips to figures such as Mildred Falls, Jackson's long-suffering pianist (Clark, hitting the right demure, spunky and anxious notes). Hubbard, who does a stately cameo as Martin Luther King Jr., is also enjoyably idiosyncratic as the exuberant, ambitious and bow-tied Dorsey, who practically skips in place when he discusses gospel music.

Still, the cast can't fully enliven the book as it plods chronologically through Jackson's life, from her hardscrabble childhood in New Orleans (a dorky scene featuring Mitchell and Hubbard as young Mahalia and a cousin feels like something from a school play), through her initial success in Chicago and later expanding international fame. In a none-too-ingenious piece of dramaturgy, a telephone that's one of the only articles on the stage -- other than a piano and a small organ, rousingly played by Clark and Hubbard -- rings periodically to signal Jackson's mushrooming celebrity. Ed Sullivan is on the line! Now it's the folks at Carnegie Hall!

A chronicle of Jackson's tour through Europe features mind-numbing lines such as "Look! It's the Eiffel Tower!" Presumably, the historical and scene-setting photos (a civil rights march, a stained-glass window) that occasionally bathe the backdrop are meant to flesh out the world that the great gospel singer experienced, but the shots have a cobbled-together-slide-show aura that only emphasizes the narrative's choppiness.

Director Jones has failed to give the show the brisk pace that might have minimized the script's flaws. Scenes drag. Pauses abound. Jaded reviewers get fidgety and cranky. To be fair: many audience members on opening night seemed thrilled with the production. Avid applause erupted regularly and there were standing ovations at curtain call.

Mahalia: A Gospel Musical

by Tom Stolz. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II; music direction, S. Renee Clark; lighting design, Jessica Lee Winfield, sound design, Steve Baena; costume design, Janine Sunday; wig design, Vanessa Streeter; props/scenic artist, Kevin Laughon. Through March 14 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 1-800-494-8497 or visit http://www.boxofficetickets.com.

Wren is a freelance writer.

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