By Samuel L. Leiter
If your theatergoing sweet tooth craves a sugar bun of a rags-to-riches show business musical, you might consider tasting Sweetee at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Written and composed by Gail Kriegel, it’s got plenty of gooey plot implausibilities and clichés that stick in your gullet, but it sings a song of social significance and has an appealing cast, a tuneful score, and a sprightly staging by five-time Tony-nominated director-choreographer Patricia Birch (Grease).
Set mainly in the Deep South over the years 1936-1942, Sweetee begins in the fictional racist town of Claytonville, SC. Tim MacKabee’s simple set of wood planking, perfectly lit by Kirk Bookman, makes the territory clear with huge stenciled words on the rear wall, STATE LAW REQUIRES ALL COLORED PASSENGERS TO RIDE IN REAR OF BUS.
The title character (Jordan Tyson) is a feisty, brown-skinned teenager who earns a pittance as a street singer while caring for her white mother, Violet (Katy Blake), a haggard, alcoholic hooker. Torn between her filial love for her mommy and her desire to escape, Sweetee links up with a racially mixed group of adolescent orphans.
These poverty-stricken kids are cared for by a white couple, the handsome but poor Reverend Dan (Jeremiah James) and his wife, Hannah (Katherine Weber), dedicated to caring for orphans. Hannah even taught the kids to sing and play church music on the kazoo (Thomas: Adante Carter), the ukulele (Hedy: Morgan Siobhan Green), the washboard (Murphy: Amir Royale), and the clarinet (Abraham: Hugh Cha).
When his congregation’s bigots reject Dan’s interracial band he sets out with them, calling them Reverend Dan’s Orphanage Band, for New Orleans to raise money for his orphan work; the unhappy Hannah, though, returns to her well-off preacher father in Philadelphia. Violet dies and Sweetee, following the advice of the friendly cemetery owner, Mr. Robinson (Cedric Cannon), leaves with the band.
The plot tracks their travails—including being shanghaied to dig in a gravel pit—and their encounter with the charismatic, itinerant musician, Cat Jones (Jelani Alladin), the “One-Man Blooze Band,” and his duffel bag of instruments.
Cat not only inspires the band to play these instruments almost instantly—“Just sit on down, start messing with it and before you know it, you can play good as anyone”—he also convinces the reluctant reverend that they should drop their churchy repertoire: “You don’t want your music to comfort folks. You want it to get them movin,’ feelin,’ make them happy. Then they’ll give you what you want.”
As expected, the band gains attention in New Orleans, and, when Dan gets the chance to further his orphan work in New York, the ever-loyal Sweetee leaves with him, abandoning not only the band but the romantically disappointed Cat. For unexplained reasons, it takes several years, during which Sweetee starts a small business, before she returns to Cat and the band and happy days are here again.
Sweetee benefits from period costumes by Tricia Barsamian and inventive staging by Birch, who uses three benches to represent all the scenic units. But the musical’s two and a quarter hour script is loaded with stereotypical characters, including the usual rednecks, and the narrative not only has too many loosely connected scenes but can be annoyingly predictable. The second act shift in Dan’s behavior is especially obvious; it’s the kind of thing you suspect will happen while hoping it won’t. And, while it’s nice to see Sweetee become a symbol of female empowerment, her transition is explained in just a line or two, with little organic connection to what we’ve seen before.
Sweetee’s story is a flimsy string on which to hang over two dozen songs, many of them emotionally and toe-tappingly pleasing. They stretch from rousing gospel to moody blues to hot licks jazz, played to lyrics ranging from the sentimental to the inspirational. Doug Katsaros’s excellent orchestrations are performed by a four-man ensemble, situated in a corner of the auditorium behind the spectators.
The adorable, 20-year-old Tyson brings great joy to her Off-Broadway debut, acting with truthfulness, singing with passion, and radiating theatrical electricity. She faces serious competition from the vibrant personality and musical skills of Alladin, soon to appear in Broadway’s Frozen. James’s wooden Reverend Dan is compensated for by the warmth of Weber’s Hannah and the rich baritone of Cannon’s Mr. Robinson.
In one of its inspirational songs, Sweetee, which appears to be in tryout mode, insists:
GOTTA DREAM BIG DREAM BIG DREAM BIG, GOTTA DREAM BIG
Sweet dreams, everyone.
Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St, NYC
Through June 18
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).