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Ford’s Theatre’s roof is raised by the gospel of ‘Shout Sister Shout!’

The story of the Swinging Gospel Queen, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, makes for an evening of rousing musicality

Carrie Compere as Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Cheryl L. West's “Shout Sister Shout!” at Ford’s Theatre. (André Chung)
5 min

When it sings, “Shout Sister Shout!,” dramatist Cheryl L. West’s no-frills portrait of gospel sensation Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is all thrills. The charge comes most electrifyingly from the evening’s star, Carrie Compere, who dedicates body and soul to the story of a singer anguished by conflicting loyalties to her music, her mother and her maker.

Hers is not the lone voice of distinction in this roof-raising production at Ford’s Theatre, directed by Kenneth L. Roberson with an assist from Sheldon Epps. The other key performers of “Shout Sister Shout!” — Carol Dennis as Rosetta’s mother; Felicia Boswell as her lover; and Kelli Blackwell as her competition, Mahalia Jackson — all let loose with crowd-pleasing belts.

The show follows the fight, flight and uphill climb of Tharpe, whose concert and recording career, segueing from gospel to swing to R&B, were influences on Elvis Presley, Little Richard and a passel of other rock-and-rollers. To make her mark, according to West’s script (based on Gayle F. Wald’s biography), Tharpe had to liberate herself from an abusive preacher husband (Sinclair Mitchell) and a God-fearing mother who shamed her for straying from the church.

Some of the elements of this bio-musical — 20 songs strong — are the standard-issue steppingstones of an overworked genre. A distinguishing mark in Tharpe’s story, though, is the fortitude she was able to muster, growing up in a suffocating environment and still finding a way to escape and formulate her own style. The opposition of authority figures, the overcoming of self-doubt, the struggle to forge an identity as a crossover artist: All play their roles in Tharpe’s rise to stardom in the 1930s and ’40s.

Backed by an eight-member orchestra conducted by Victor Simonson, Compere and Dennis’s Bible-thumping Bell divvy up the bulk of the blues and spiritual numbers, reminding us again and again how vast a space Black musicianship occupies in America’s musical heritage. That’s a worthy theme, especially with regard to a star whose renown has receded. The musical reaffirms the fact that performers such as Tharpe and others more famous — Jackson and Muddy Waters and Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie and Cab Calloway and on and on — form the true backbone of the nation’s musical identity.

“Anyone singing gospel with a blues guitar ain’t singing for the Lord, if you ask me,” Blackwell’s Jackson irritably observes, as Tharpe attempts to out-sing her in a joint concert where they both do wonderful justice to “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About.” Fans of Tharpe may be disappointed by how skimpily her guitar skills are revealed in the show. But that Jackson can’t acknowledge the role Tharpe and her instrument-strumming play in propelling gospel toward the mainstream tells us something about the trailblazing scale of her vision.

Compere escorts us through the decades of Tharpe’s evolution, ending in 1973, when, having lost a leg to illness and using a wheelchair, she died in Philadelphia at age 58. Along the way, she collected and discarded husbands in what the musical suggests were unhappy or arranged marriages, including her third wedding, conducted in a D.C. stadium before thousands; it portrays the real love of her life as Boswell’s touring co-star Knight. They share two stirring Act 2 numbers, Tharpe’s own “That’s All” and their collaboration, “Didn’t It Rain?” The show’s other highlights include versions of “On My Way,” “The Lonesome Road” and “Rock Me.”

The lesbian romance’s effect on Tharpe’s mother contributes to the most complex psychological aspect of “Shout Sister Shout!” The up-and-down cycle of affection and disapproval that Dennis’s Bell expresses for her daughter shifts from scene to scene. Wrestling with its nuances is tricky for a musical, especially as the relationship is tangled up in religion, sexuality and the aspirational limitations imposed on Black women. Still, one wishes the idea of the mother as a guilt-inducing roadblock could have been delved into with more subtlety.

The show could also benefit from a more arresting visual design. Tim Mackabee’s two-tiered set places the orchestra at a penthouse level and much of the action below, on a stage framed on three sides by bland, louvered doors that appear to have been ordered out of a California Closets catalogue. Costume designer Alejo Vietti, on the other hand, creates looks for the performers aptly redolent of show business in mid-century America.

The proceedings are gracefully anchored by Compere, with stunning assists from Dennis and Boswell; not often do you hear the voices of so many powerhouse women on one stage. A hard-working ensemble deserves mention, too, as it conjures places such as the Cotton Club and illustrates swing and other dance styles ably staged by choreographer William Carlos Angulo.

The success of “Shout Sister Shout!,” though, is chiefly in its scaling the high notes in the career of a woman who became known both as the Swinging Gospel Queen and the Godmother of Rock-and-Roll — and in Compere’s charismatic seizure of her crown.

Shout Sister Shout!, by Cheryl L. West. Directed by Kenneth L. Roberson. Production supervised by Sheldon Epps. Choreography, William Carlos Angulo; set, Tim Mackabee; costumes, Alejo Vietti; lighting, Alan C. Edwards; sound, Sun Hee Kil. With David Rowen, Joseph Anthony Byrd. About 2 hours, 20 minutes. Through May 13 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW.