"Mahalia's Song," a new musical revue at Howard University based on the life and career of gospel music great Mahalia Jackson, is a jubilant production, well-acted and better sung.
This is not just another slapdash set of hastily strung together, plotless revues of black standards, such as "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "Bubblin' Brown Sugar." Llewellyn Smith's economical script provides a fast-moving framework for vignettes from Jackson's life, and takes on vibrant colors with the irresistible songs.
Director Mike Malone keeps things constantly moving on stage, and works wonders keeping the large cast in order. His choreography is imaginative, notably in a scene that conveys the frenetic feel of a Chicago speakeasy, and he provides a nifty baptism scene in the orchestra pit, complete with splashing water. Backing him up is a talented group of Washington jazz, blues and gospel musicians and singers, as well as university students, all assembled by Howard University's Office of Theatrical Productions.
During the first act's closing number, the cast marches through the audience. This is ordinarily a cliche', but Malone gets away with it because it's an authentic-looking New Orleans funeral procession, complete with brass band. Robert Troll's professional-looking sets are spare, stylized impressions of New Orleans and Chicago, with complimentary lighting by Ron Truitt.
As the adult Mahalia, Pearl Williams-Jones has an earthy, maternal presence, and wisely refrains from imitating Jackson, instead providing her own stirring versions of the songs. She has several fine scenes, the most memorable of which may be in a laundry plant in 1920s Chicago, where a young Mahalia, just in from New Orleans, gets the spirit moving in a skeptical bunch of laundry women, leading them in a riotous version of Jackson's classic "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands."
Malone gets uniformly energetic and natural performances from the large supporting cast. Standouts include Andre' Smith as the preacher and choirmaster, with an outstanding gospel voice; William Hubbard, who gives an authentic feel to his scene-stealing bits as a blind blues singer; and Jacquelyn J. Ruffin and James Cheek Jr. turn in nice performances as Aunt Hannah and Chafalaye, respectively.
A surprise in the cast is the brief but exciting performance by 13-year-old Sharon Steele, of the Steele Family gospel group, as the child Mahalia. In her one song, "Didn't It Rain," Steele gets the town of New Orleans shaking, with a sturdy voice and a presence beyond her years. Gwendolyn Ross, as the teen-age Mahalia, has an impressive voice, but seems overly earnest in her part.
MAHALIA'S SONG. By Llewellyn Smith. Directed and choreographed by Mike Malone. At Howard University's Cramton Auditorium Saturday 2:30 and 10 p.m. and Sunday at 8 p.m.