‘Hallelujah, Baby! at York Theatre Company. (Photo: Ben Strothmann)
It won five Tony Awards in 1968 including Best Musical, yet Hallelujah, Baby! has mostly sat on the shelf for the past 50 years, with the notable exception of a 2005 co-production between George Street Playhouse and Arena Stage. There were hopes that the show might return to New York City, where its original run only lasted 293 performances.
That didn’t happen, but the musical has been on York Theatre Company’s radar for quite some time. It is the first musical to receive a second staged reading as part of the company’s Musicals in Mufti series (previously seen in 2000). Directed by Gerry McIntyre, who was part of that 2005 production, Hallelujah, Baby! is both problematic as well as a fascinating commentary on the complicated race relations that still plague our country.
With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (with additional lyrics by Amanda Green), Hallelujah, Baby! follows the journey of Georgina Franklin (Stephanie Umoh), a young black maid who strives for a life beyond the one she’s been born into. Along for the journey is her mother (Vivian Reed), her longtime love interest Clem (Jarran Muse), and her Caucasian manager Harvey (Tally Sessions), who hopes to break society’s norms and convince Georgina that a bi-racial relationship is possible.
Laurents, who wrote the book for the racially fueled West Side Story a decade earlier and didn’t even get a Tony nod, revisits the theme in a different construct. A series of short scenes carry the action from the 1920s to “the new century,” though Georgina establishes the premise within the musical’s first moments, saying, “ Outside, we don’t change. Inside? That’s a horse of a different.”
A significant suspension of disbelief is required to jump through Georgina’s climb to the top, as characters wander in and out of the storyline without much context. In a full production, these transitions might make marginally more sense, though the script seems less concerned about details than it does about presence.
Laurents originally wrote the show for Lena Horne, telling the Washington Post in a 2004 interview, “We were extremely close and I knew her. The character was a very hard-edged, angry, funny, sexual tigress.” Horne left the production and was replaced by Leslie Uggams, who won a Tony Award for her performance, though the role was altered to suit Uggams’ image.
With limited rehearsal, Umoh does an admirable job and is a fine reminder that there’s room on today’s Broadway stage for other African American leading ladies beyond Audra McDonald. Ironically, Umoh followed in McDonald’s footsteps, playing Sarah in the 2009 Broadway revival of Ragtime. Here, she is spirited and feisty, and most at home in scenes with her onstage mother. Reed, a veteran performer for more than 40 years, is more often seen these days on the cabaret circuit, though a welcome return to the stage in a fully produced musical is overdue. The men fare less successful, if only for lack of chemistry with their leading lady.
The story skids by a number of racially fueled confrontations, such as a scene in the 1940s when Georgina and her entourage run into trouble on a bus after Harvey chooses to sit behind them, or in “the new century” when she’s asked to sing “a real old timey, hand-clapping Spiritual.”
With another overhaul of Laurents’ book, perhaps Hallelujah, Baby! might find its footing. Until then, there are gems in the score, including Georgina’s two big numbers, “Being Good” and “Now’s the Time,” as well as the reminder that as far as we’ve advanced in racial equality, the journey is far from over.
York Theatre Company
The Theatre at St. Peter’s
619 Lexington Avenue, NYC
Through February 4
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.