Sunday, February 08, 2009

Mahalia: A Gospel Musical

CPH’S ‘MAHALIA’ not only entertaining, but an important history lesson

‘’MAHALIA: A GOSPEL MUSICAL,’ which is now in production at the Cleveland Play House, fulfills all the requirements for a Black History month offerings. It tells a history of a black icon, who not only played an important role in both establishing a major Black arts contribution, but also affected African American history.

“MAHALIA,” a dynamic gospel epic by Tom Stolz, is a thinly veiled history lesson that takes a nostalgic glance back at the Civil Rights Movement through the vocals of Mahalia Jackson, who was a friend and confident of Martin Luther King.

Halie, as Jackson was often called, was a humble, deeply religious woman whose expressive, full throated voice carried her from a three-room shanty in New Orleans to appearances before presidents (she sang at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration) and royalty).

The Queen of Gospel’s music career stretched from the 1920’s-1940’s. During that time she produced many classic recordings, including “Precious Lord,” “Trouble of the World,” “Down By the Riverside,” and “Move On Up a Little Higher.”
The script, which is a series of songs connected by dialogue, is well crafted. By the time the journey is over, the audience has a clear picture of this important Black icon’s life, but also of the struggle of a cultural group’s moving from “coloreds” to “African Americans.” Segregation, bus boycotts, freedom marches, important speeches and legislation, and the path to integration are all showcased.

The Cleveland Play House’s production, under the adept direction of Kent Gash, is excellent. Much of the success of the show centers on Natasha Yvette Williams, who peoples the role of Mahalia. She is Mahalia, she is not an imitation of the great woman. She has a terrific voice and interprets the Jackson songs with verve, meaning and dimension. Her version of “Deep River” was riveting.

Terry Burrell, who portrays several parts, is at her best as Mildred, Jackson’s pianist and friend. Her hyperemotional response to traveling to the segregated South, was the production’s laugh highlight.

The only disappointing part of the show was C. E. Smith’s performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. If King had presented his “I Have a Dream” speech as blandly as Smith intoned it, one of the greatest speeches in the English language, would never would have become the beacon light of the civil right’s movement.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘MAHALIA: A GOSPEL MUSICAL,’ which is both an important and entertaining piece of theatre, should be required viewing by every student in the Greater Cleveland area. In the period of two acts, they would get a clear understanding of the plight of the “coloreds” as they marched toward integration. And, because of its entertainment value, would have enjoyed themselves.