THE GOSPEL promises that the humble shall be exalted, and that's certainly the case with the gospel according to "Sing, Mahalia, Sing!," the biographical musical about the life of Mahalia Jackson beginning its national tour at the Warner Theater.
With no sets to speak of, without costly costumes, without megamillions behind it, this humble new show elates performers and audience alike with more spine-chilling moments than many of the elaborate musicals in recent memory, and keeps those moments coming from start to finish.
Most of the tingles are due to the music, and especially the singing. "Mahalia" stars Jennifer "Dreamgirls" Holliday, who is undeniably a force of nature.
Holliday doesn't try to be Mahalia Jackson; she is unmistakably her majestic self. Like Mahalia, Holliday was trained in church choirs, and has a similarly galvanizing effect on audiences, scooping up buckets of low notes, rumbling like an earthquake, then suddenly rocketing with gale force into the heavens. Her songs range from storefront simplicity to funked-up gospel.
And in "I've Got Something," Holliday gets a number that approximates the wrenching power of her "Dreamgirls" showstopper "And I'm Telling You . . .," drawing on a similar well of hurt and defiance. Though her acting is limited by a simplistic script that tends to canonize Jackson, Holliday is believable, funny and powerful.
Holliday's vocal strength is fully matched by the rest of the large cast, which includes Washington's Richard Smallwood Singers, and standout performances are given by Marva Hicks as the young Mahalia, and Felicia Y. Coleman, who puts her ethereal, skyscraping soprano to work in the dual roles of Louise Lemon and Rosa Parks.
The show was written and staged by Washington native George Faison, who put together "The Wiz" and designs stage shows for pop stars like Ashford and Simpson; his touch shows in the flashy, fluid movement. Faison's book is as naive as a school pageant -- Mahalia's straightforward narration of her life is punctuated frequently by songs. Faison makes a few missteps, most obviously oversimplification and an interpretation of the civil rights movement as a jazz dance, with an overbearing Ku Klux Klan backdrop. But the voices speak volumes and Faison provides plenty to look at, adding a kind of "Dreamgirls" dazzle to his very economical elements.
It's just here through the weekend, but it will be at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House the week of April 9. MAHALIA, SING! -- At the Warner Theater through Sunday.