Familiar tales run rampant in "If This Hat Could Talk: The Untold Stories of Dr. Dorothy Height," a generic info-musical about the civil rights movement. The show, at the Lincoln Theatre through next Sunday, is basically a primer on a half-century of American history -- the Civil Rights Greatest Hits -- and oddly, the figure of Dorothy Height is barely in it.
Apparently, writer-director George Faison wanted to leave room for everyone else who made a mark during the struggle. The show sweeps through the decades with new characters (icons, in many cases) popping up every five minutes to declare their significance and maybe sing an inspirational song.
Activist Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt deliver speeches and lead a group of women in an up-tempo number called "Ready to Fight." Martin Luther King Jr. orates roundly and joins Height for "Keep Your Eye on the Ball." Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on the bus.
"My name is Fannie Lou Hamer," a woman announces midway through the second act. The Hamer legend is duly related -- daughter of an astoundingly large family, underdog crusader for voting rights in the South -- the upbeat "City of Heaven" is lustily rendered, and the restless show moves on, looking for the next hero or martyr worth remembering.
It's a parade of platitudes that never catches theatrical fire, despite a steady flow of solid gospel melodies from composer Joe Coleman and a cast of big-voiced singers who are easy to listen to. Faison, a Tony winner in 1975 for choreographing "The Wiz," would rather praise than dramatize; the show is plainly conceived as a celebration of people who are well chronicled in the history books.
So while Height, the longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women whose memoirs inspired this show, might seem like a source of inside information on major events, don't hold your breath waiting for revelations. The show opens with women complaining that their issues (education, housing, jobs) were slighted during the 1963 March on Washington, and that they -- Height in particular -- should have had a place on the podium.
But after a defiant number called "What We Want," the show rarely offers a fresh angle. It gently tilts toward the women's view -- there is a number about "The Widows of the Struggle," for example -- but it almost never settles in to tell rough-edged stories or sketch flesh-and-blood characters.
An exception is Height's wide-eyed pleasure at coming of age in the Harlem Renaissance: "I'm living in a Negro world," sings Julia Garrison as the young Height. "I'm feeling like an uptown girl." The swinging melody is chirpy and naive, and the immediate contrast with the ongoing lynchings in the South is stark.
In fact, the moment grows grisly as Faison projects an old photograph of a lynched man on the three-panel screen hanging over the stage. (George Corrin's tour-ready set design features little more than low risers and the screen, with the seven-piece band tucked at the back of the stage.) The projections are sometimes evocative, but with footage of beatings and hosings and pictures of the four girls who were killed in a Birmingham church bombing, they are a bit heavy-handed. More than once, they dwarfed the static groupings on the stage.
The actors are likably noble, with Carol Dennis-Dylan and Ebony Jo-Ann leading the way as the dignified (adult) Height and Bethune. But the steady diet of exhortatory speeches and swelling anthems is hard to swallow after a while. The impulse toward heavy-duty reverence is understandable, but it's a suffocating way to put on a show.
If This Hat Could Talk, written and directed by George Faison, original music and lyrics by Joe Coleman. Approximately 21/2 hours. Through June 26 at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Call 202-397-7328 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.