With its sophisticated harmonic flourishes and stirring vocals, gospel music can't be underestimated as an artistic influence. Where would American pop and R&B be without great gospel-raised artists like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin, to name but a few? Yet gospel's theatrical relationship is slightly less obvious.
The genre turns up on stages certainly, often in individual numbers that are part of eclectic scores. But all-gospel musicals with Broadway-level impact are relatively rare. In 1983, Vy Higginsen and Ken Wydro wrote Mama I Want To Sing, a show that's had an up-and-down touring life (and a 2011 film adaptation). In 1985, avant-garde theatrical pioneer Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson created The Gospel at Colonus, in which Sophocles' Greek tragedy received a gospel reworking.
Neither of those somewhat uncertain flirtations with wider acclaim ever reached the level of Your Arms Too Short To Box With God. Alex Bradford, Vinnette Carroll and Micki Grant's rousing take on the Book of Matthew was presented on Broadway in the late '70s and early '80s for 647 performances, and the show's later casts featured stars such as Jennifer Holliday, Al Green and Patti LaBelle.
Regina Taylor's Crowns certainly fits into that tradition. Since 2002, her loosely constructed musical tale of South Carolina churchgoing ladies has been mounted by big regional companies in important theater towns and by community theaters in the heartland. Even with its modest cast size and accessible story and score, Crowns never made it to Broadway, but as the Nashville premiere at Christ Church Cathedral makes clear, it's highly palatable fare for theatergoers — and an enjoyable excursion through some great music.
Taylor based her opus on a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, which gathered interviews and black-and-white photography celebrating African-American women and their elaborate Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. The resulting story concerns a young lady, Yolonda, whose mother sends her from Brooklyn — where the streets are dangerous — to live with relatives in rural South Carolina, where the local older females introduce her to their tradition of merging fashion with praise. By show's end, Yolonda has found her identity, and has developed an appreciation for her elders' nurturing ways and the importance of the phrase, "Put something on your head!"
Taylor's script works in some pertinent references to the civil rights movement and the realities of family sorrow and death, and evokes bygone cultural touchstones such as the Rev. Ike and the comic strip The Gumps. Mostly, though, her opus sets up a revue, a showcase for finely attired actresses to relate the stories that epitomize their "hattitude."
The lively cast of seven runs through a host of classic gospel songs, including "Wade in the Water," "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" "When the Saints Go Marching In," and the finale, "Walk All Over God's Heaven," an uplifting tune that's been recorded by everyone from the Gospel Consolators to Mahalia Jackson to Alison Krauss. Extended vocal jams and praiseworthy handclapping induce occasional chills.
Crowns features talented actor-singers who've recently been seen on other Nashville stages, including LaToya Gardner, Dajuana Hammond, Naeandria Callihan and Charletta Jordan, plus the highly respected Tamiko Robinson, who takes on the pivotal role of Yolonda (though in this setting, her formidable acting skills are overshadowed by all the singing). The eldest character, Mother Shaw, is played winningly by Theola Futch, a live-theater rookie whose résumé is mostly composed of concert and church performances.
The lone male, Nicholas Oldham, portrays various fathers, brothers, husbands and preachers, and he's a constant joy, exhibiting versatility in his characterizations and a powerful, soulful voice, especially in his rendering of Cooke's "Touch the Hem of His Garment."
Generally, the direction — a joint effort by Ted Swindley and Mary McCallum — is smooth and effective. The opening night performance had a few passages where it looked like the players were still feeling for the blocking, and the microphone system used to help nullify the normally cavernous echoes of the cathedral was running too hot. The solid musical direction is by Randy Craft, who also provides the piano accompaniment.
Naturally, a show like this calls for festive costuming. Hats off (!) to Roxie Rogers, who outfits the ladies in striking hues of red, mustard yellow, purple, royal blue and peach, as well as numerous attention-grabbing headpieces.
Crowns comes in agreeably at about 90 minutes in one single act, and in the town that birthed the Fisk Jubilee Singers, it should go over big. After an enthusiastic first weekend turnout, the show is on hiatus until Feb. 9 and 10 — and those performances are already sold out, according to Susan Dupont, coordinator for the cathedral's Sacred Space for the City Arts Series. Christ Church is exploring the possibility of scheduling an encore performance.
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