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Sing Hallelujah! ‘Marie and Rosetta’

September 20th, 2016 Comments off

 

by Samuel L. Leiter

Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones in "Marie and Rosetta. (Photo: Ahron R. Foster via The Broadway Blog.)

Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones in “Marie and Rosetta. (Photo: Ahron R. Foster via The Broadway Blog.)

Yes, we all know about the horrible explosion in Chelsea the other day, but let me remind you that there’s a far more benign blast of energy bursting only a few blocks away through the Atlantic Theatre’s Linda Gross Theatre on W. 20th Street. The sensational artists detonating it are Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis incarnating the sounds and souls of two great gospel singers, Marie Knight (1925-2009) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73), in George Brant’s hallelujah of a bio-musical, Marie and Rosetta.

Brant, taking a bunch of dramatic liberties, tells the story of how Tharpe, a legend in the African-American gospel music community, is returning in 1946 to her gospel roots after a commercially successful excursion into more secular sounding—and thus notorious—music. While touring, she comes across Marie, a pretty girl, ten years younger and in awe of her; as Tharpe prepares for a show, she invites Marie to become her singing partner.

Their encounter takes place in a Mississippi funeral parlor where Rosetta will be rehearsing; this is the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, when black performers were prevented from using ordinary venues for their art; toward the end, it turns out that Brant has another interesting reason for choosing this unusual locale. Ten caskets, with an upright piano, form the background of Riccardo Hernández’s set (nicely lit by Christopher Akerlind), and Marie is suitably shocked when Rosetta says she’ll have to sleep in one that night for want of a more conventional resting place.

Tharpe is a full-figured, imperious, queenly woman, with a ton of sass, wearing a full-length, pale aqua, beaded dress (thanks to costumer Dede M. Ayite), and speaking and singing in a voice so commanding it could put the hearing aid industry out of business. She turns out, however, to be vastly warm, maternal, and eternally forgiving, her prickliness a mask for her insecurities (she’s a tad jealous of the great singer, Mahalia Jackson).

Marie, on the other hand, is modest, withdrawn, and pious, uncomfortable playing Rosetta’s raucous style of music, which gives such worldly sensuality to familiar church music that she was later recognized as a major precursor of rock ‘n roll. Drawing the women together is not only their music, but also the stories they share, like those about their mothers or their troubles with the “squirrelly” men in their lives.

Gradually, as the pair sing a series of (mostly) rafter-shaking gospel tunes, Marie, not quite what she first seems to be, warms to the task and learns to appreciate and perform the kind of up-tempo, rocking, hip-swaying gospel music Rosetta exemplifies but that makes “high church” folk like her uncomfortable. Quieter spirituals include Marie’s “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” and “Peace in the Valley,” but the keyboard gets plenty of loud pounding by both, solo and in tandem.

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis in 'Marie and Rosetta.' (Photo: Ahron R. Foster via The Broadway Blog.)

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis in ‘Marie and Rosetta.’ (Photo: Ahron R. Foster via The Broadway Blog.)

Rosetta also plays vigorously on both an acoustic and, most distinctively, an electric guitar, something that only made her more controversial. You’ll want to buckle your seat belts for when the pair join in on “Didn’t it Rain” and “Up above My Head.” (Much credit is due to the hidden musicians, Felicia Collins and Deah Harriott.)

As the play winds down, the situation takes a turn that gives us another perspective on the grim surroundings. Like the information rolling by at the end of a film based on actual events, we soon get a lot of post-1946 exposition, tying the piece together neatly but also underlining playwriting contrivances.

Nonetheless, Marie and Rosetta, vibrantly staged by Neil Pepe, isn’t the kind of play you criticize the way you do something by Edward Albee. It’s a well-crafted exercise that provides an excellent context in which to learn about and appreciate two exceptional performers who—especially Tharpe—made an indelible impact on popular music. Tharpe (buried in an unmarked grave first given a headstone in 2009) has been celebrated in recent years in print, a documentary, and even a U.S. postage stamp, but her partnership with Knight is less well known. Until now, that is.

Jones and Lewis couldn’t be bettered as the holy vessels bringing Marie and Rosetta back to life; they perfectly capture these women’s sharply different personalities, offering totally believable yet larger-than-life representations. Lewis especially, because of Tharpe’s grandiose personality, etches a portrait of unforgettable authority that will yank your tears out of their ducts. When they sing, either as solos or a duet, you’ll have to hold on to your armrests to keep from standing up and shouting “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!”

Marie and Rosetta
Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater
326 W. 20th St., NYC
Through October 16

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Atlantic’s ‘These Paper Bullets!’

December 23rd, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

'These Paper Bullets!' at Atlantic Theater Company. (Photo: Ahron R. Foster via The Broadway Blog.)

‘These Paper Bullets!’ at Atlantic Theater Company. (Photo: Ahron R. Foster via The Broadway Blog.)

Much Ado about Nothing, like every other Shakespeare play, has been subject to endless creative manipulation to wring something new from its romantic complications, especially the contentious love affair between Beatrice and Benedick. Most critics would call the play high comedy with farcical interludes (the Dogberry scenes), but few think of it as nonstop slapstick farce. That, unfortunately, is how it’s been reimagined by playwright Rolin Jones, with chaotic direction by Jackson Gay, under the title These Paper Bullets!, an egregiously over-the-top, raucous, and devastatingly unfunny “play with music” currently playing at Atlantic Theatre Company. It’s hard to believe it originated at Yale Repertory Theatre.

Jones places the action in London’s Swinging 60s—1964 to be precise—just when the Beatles returned in triumph from their famous American invasion. The idea is brilliant; the execution—not so much. Four of Shakespeare’s young men have been converted into the Liverpudlian-accented Quartos—Fab Four clones in skinny ties, tight suits with velvet collars, and mushroom haircuts. Their lead singer is Benedick—Ben (Justin Kirk), that is—complete with John Lennon’s nasality. Happily, their terrifically Beatles-like songs are by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong (American Idiot).

Ben’s female counterpart is Bea (Nicole Parker), Carnaby Street’s top Mod designer, replicating miniskirt guru Mary Quant down to her iconic bangs and Sassoon bob. Hero has become the Quaalude-popping, clueless, Twiggy-like model Higgy (Ariana Venturi). Claudio is Claude (Bryan Fenkart), the quartet’s Paul, who turns against Higgy when shown doctored photos of her in flagrante delicto, a machination carried out by the vengefully villainous Don Best (Adam O’Byrne)—Much Ado’s Don John—inspired by Pete Best, the Beatles’ pre-Ringo drummer. The other band members are Pedro (James Barry), the Ringo, and Balth (from the minor character, Balthasar; Lucas Papaelias), the George.

Costume designer Jessica Ford’s colorful, satirical take on go-go Mod fashions is the show’s most successful visual ingredient. Paul Whitaker’s lights are busy but can’t help Michael Yeargan’s clutzy set, despite its clever revolve resembling a vinyl record. The production itself is a clownish mishmash of juvenilia, performed with all the subtlety of the Three Stooges. Scads of action take place in the auditorium (with awkward bits of audience participation), and the dialogue is an uncomfortable hodgepodge of 60s Brit-speak and Bardic locutions.

Gay encourages her actors to mug mercilessly as if this were a dramatization of “Twist and Shout,” the pratfalls pile up like pancakes, girls’ panties fly like snowflakes, people wear lampshades on their heads, and Bea, in one of the plodding attempts at naughtiness, does a bit with a used condom she can’t dislodge from her finger. Yuck. Among all the overstuffed hams, only Greg Sturh’s Dogberry incarnation, Scotland Yard’s fatuously incompetent Douglas Berry, made me laugh (once, I think). These Paper Bullets! is more like an amateur version of a Richard Lester Beatles’ movie than of a great Shakespearean comedy.

Although Armstrong’s nine songs aren’t integrated into the text but are set pieces performed by the Quartos, it’s only when they’re sung that the show proves at all satisfying. West Side Story remains the benchmark transformation of Shakespeare into a contemporary musical, and Something Rotten! is a much funnier spoof of Shakespearean pretensions. As for These Paper Bullets!, well, add one more bad quarto to the list.

These Paper Bullets!
Atlantic Theatre Company
336 West 20th Street, NYC
Through January 10, 2016

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).

Don’t Miss: ‘Found’ at Atlantic Theater Company

October 22nd, 2014 Comments off
The cast of 'Found' (photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Found’ (photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia via The Broadway Blog.)

The New York theater season is proving to be filled with an invigorating sense of creativity, including the latest venture from the team that brought us [title of show]. With a book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree and music and lyrics by Eli Bolin, Found is an original musical based on scores of surprising and eccentric discarded notes and letters that have been “found” in the real world by every-day people.

Barrett Wilbert Weed and Nick Blaemire in 'Found' (photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia via The Broadway Blog.)

Barrett Wilbert Weed and Nick Blaemire in ‘Found’ (photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia via The Broadway Blog.)

Inspired by actual events, the show follows Davy who, along with his two best friends, is lost and broke. When he finds a strangely revealing note on his windshield meant for someone else, it sparks an outlandish idea that finds him and his compatriots on a wild, comedic journey.

By bringing a host of real notes and letters from Davy Rothbart’s popular Found Magazine to irreverent theatrical life, this insightful new musical tells a story of ambition, betrayal and loyalty while celebrating the weirdness in all of us. And the critics agree. Raves have been pouring in since the show’s October 14 opening. Here’s a snapshot of what people are saying:

“Forget texting and Tumblr: The ebullient new musical “Found” is a throwback to the good old days when reminders were scribbled on scraps of paper, kiss-offs on Post-Its, excuses on the backs of envelopes.” New York Post

“The endearing new musical Found is literally scrappy: It’s organized around messages found on real-life notes, signs and other misplaced or discarded missives, as collected by Davy Rothbart in a magazine he has published sporadically since 2001. These scribbles offer glimpses into other people’s minds—funny, angry, weird, poignant—and have been organized into a paper trail for the plot of Found to follow. Nick Blaemire, sweet and bouncy as a gum ball, plays a fictionalized version of Davy; Barrett Wilbert Weed (in excellent voice) and Daniel Everidge are the decent-hearted roommates who help him follow his dream, and Betsy Morgan is the producer who tempts him to Hollywood.Six tip-top actors, including Community’s Danny Pudi and the limber Andrew Call, play dozens of side characters and bump up the energy with choreography, by Monica Bill Barnes, that adorably evokes real people dancing.” Time Out

“Visually, the show is a lot of fun to watch. David Korins’ amusing wallpaper set is plastered with blow-ups of the hand-written missives. Darrel Maloney’s projections keep coming at you fast and furious. And clever choreographer Monica Bill Barnes has drilled the cast in stylized arm and leg movements that are more interesting and wittier than formal dance steps.” Variety

“The ensemble of six are remarkable at playing and differentiating dozens of other characters — some just the one-sentence “voices” of found notes. Everything technical — from the unusually natural sound design to the orchestrations played by a combo of six arranged in little dugouts on the set, like more found objects — is top-notch, with special notice to the movement by modern dance choreographer Monica Bill Barnes.” Vulture.com

Found
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
Through November 9

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