What "Sing, Mahalia, Sing" desperately needs is rewrite, "Mahalia," rewrite.
A tribute to the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, it circles its intriguing subject too quickly, too cautiously, too incompletely.
A starring vehicle for "Dreamgirls" star Jennifer Holliday, it fails to take advantage of her remarkable voice.
The new show, with an awfully thin book by George Faison, opened a week-long run at the Warner on Tuesday in what the producers perceive as the start of a three-month national tour. If nothing else, that gives them time to correct "Mahalia's" most glaring problems: several incongruous dance numbers, a finale that confuses social commentary with awkward agit-prop, distracting problems with the cast members' body microphones and a general busyness that keeps the audience at a distance.
No matter how it's dressed, this is a musical revue, not biographical drama (though at 2 hours and 45 minutes, it approaches the latter). While it focuses on a performer rather than a repertoire, it's just a variation on "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "Sophisticated Ladies." If nothing else, the success of "The Gospel at Colonus" and the critical reaction to the films "Gospel" and "Say Amen, Somebody" proved that there is a substantial audience for both pure and fictive gospel properties. And the story of Jackson -- the greatest symbol and, many felt, the most striking voice in the history of gospel -- is certainly worth telling without embroidery.
But Faison doesn't agree. Although he provides Holliday with a concise, occasionally hilarious historical narrative, Faison persists in cluttering the show with extraneous bits. The worst of these are ridiculously secular dance numbers aimed at defining New Orleans, Chicago ("Shake Your Ashes") and the National Baptist Convention (which comes across more Elks than Baptist). It may be part of the formula for commercial success, but here it is ludicrous.
It's not that Faison can't utilize the crowd form: there are two hilarious scenes, one in which the Daughters of the Eastern Star do some backbiting on Mahalia's ascending star, and another in her beauty shop. But these scenes rely on dialogue, not dancing. In fact, throughout the show, the stilted choreography works against the natural exuberance of the music.
What remains is a series of vignettes, a social travelogue tracing Jackson's tracks from New Orleans to Chicago to New York, around the world, to Washington and back to Chicago. All this motion is suggested by Tom McPhillips' decidely spare set, consisting of stage-wide risers and painted backdrops, with props occasionally rolled in from the wings. Thankfully, it works.
Holliday makes her entrance out of the audience and her first numbers, "Precious Lord" and "How I Got Over," establish her right to portray Jackson. Like Jackson, she is an untrained but transcendent vocalist. Her singing is jubilant, full-throated when it needs to be, deep and lustrous elsewhere. And the influence of Bessie Smith -- in the occasional belting passage and the flurries of bent notes -- is as strong in Holliday as it was in Jackson. Still, what she offers is less imitation than implication of Jackson's earthy, maternal presence and her seldom-shaken optimism.
But Holliday drifts in and out of "Mahalia," narrating as much as she sings, occasionally distracted by her body mike, and really only accommodating the audience's expectations on a scorching "I've Got Something." It's Holliday's one genuine show-stopper, though she conveys the artless vitality of the Sanctified church in several other songs.
Fortunately, Holliday has some excellent company in "Mahalia": Glenn Jones, Caroline Adams-Evans and Joe Lynn sing better than their material. Marva Hicks as the young Mahalia is luminous but underplayed; Tyrone Jolivet proved a welcome show-stopper in an unrelenting and robust turn as the Angel of God; and Felicia Y. Coleman was simply astounding in high melismatic flight that Maynard Ferguson would have loved.
There's potential here. Faison needs to stem the secular currents that knock "Mahalia" off course, and to ease up on the selective telescoping. Some of the new songs by Faison, Wayne Davis and Richard Smallwood are effective, but there should have been more of the material associated with Jackson. And both acts end on curiously flat notes.
Faison also needs to settle Holliday in a more central position. After all, Mahalia Jackson was the embodiment of making a joyful sound unto the Lord. He should listen to his own title, and let her "Sing, Mahalia, Sing."