To say that Mahalia Jackson had a heavenly voice may benefit heaven more than the singer. Jackson might not have invented gospel music, but she popularized it, making it respectable when many of the faithful were aghast at adding a jolt of jazz, unharnessed rhythm and a lightning bolt of blues to compositions praising the Lord.
It's often frustrating to attempt to re-create the magic and personal presence a performer such as Jackson radiated. Like all artistic trailblazers, she was one of a kind. Fortunately, Alexandria's MetroStage has Bernardine Mitchell, herself a musical force of nature, superbly handling the starring role in "Mahalia," a mostly musical biography of Jackson.
Mitchell, who won a Helen Hayes Award for her starring role in "Blues in the Night" at Arena Stage in 2002, comes to MetroStage already warmed up for the part, having recently performed it in Atlanta. She is joined by William Hubbard, a Hayes winner last month for his musical direction of "Crowns" at Arena this season, and by S. Renee Clark. Hubbard co-starred with Mitchell in MetroStage's "Three Sistahs" last season, and Clark is an Atlanta-based performer who co-starred in "Mahalia" there with Mitchell.
Hubbard and Clark play multiple singing and non-singing roles, and both accompany Mitchell on piano and Hammond organ, with Clark also serving as music director.
Playwright Tom Stolz chose 22 songs, with one, "Let Us Go Down to Jordan," sung twice. Most are traditional Negro spirituals performed in Jackson's rousing style, along with several blues numbers and some gospel anthems written by Jackson's one-time partner, Thomas A. Dorsey (who is not swing bandleader Tommy Dorsey). Hubbard's soaring voice gets a solo highlight in the scintillating "Jim Crow Blues."
Jackson's life is traced chronologically, but the song that sold 2 million copies and made her a huge star, W.H. Webster's "Move On Up a Little Higher," is saved for the finale.
The job of director Carol Mitchell-leon, another veteran of the Atlanta production, is to get the trio rapidly through Stolz's stilted, exposition-burdened dialogue and let Mitchell focus on the music. Musically, the show is perfect, an uplifting and exuberant experience. Except for several scenes highlighting Jackson's involvement with the civil rights movement, Mitchell-leon has the cast emphasize comedy, their mugging glossing over trite dialogue that the ham-handed Stolz seems to have written after watching one of Hollywood's airbrushed 1940s "biographies."
But it is Jackson's relationship to music and God and how she brought the two together that are important, not her personal life (which included two failed marriages, neither of which is even hinted at here). So the thumbnail sketch is enough. We meet Mahalia as a poor teenager in Louisiana in 1927, chafing under the control of a strict aunt and church elders who do not appreciate her musical talents. We follow her to Chicago and then onto the world stage, with Hubbard and Clark skillfully populating the theater with figures from Jackson's life -- skillfully except for Hubbard's flat rendition of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which dampens part of the second act.
Mitchell deftly handles Jackson's teenage and younger years with little theatricality, merely lightening her voice and allowing more wide-eyed facial expressions, saving her concentration for the music. As Jackson leaves the Deep South behind, Mitchell unleashes her voice fully in "Yes, God Is Real" and doesn't stop until final bows. Some of the best moments are devoted to rich, three-part a cappella harmonies, such as when Hubbard and Clark accompany Mitchell in the first presentation of "Let Us Go Down to Jordan."
"Mahalia" will have you clapping and stomping. It's truly a divine experience.
"Mahalia" runs through July 11 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com. Groups should call 703-548-9044. For more information about the show and the theater, visit www.metrostage.org.