"Mahalia," the musical play by Tom Stolz on stage at the Paul Robeson Theatre, is a celebration of the life and work of the world's greatest gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson.
It is the work of an earnest and devoted playwright, director and cast whose efforts have produced mixed results.
Jackson was the musical pioneer who brought the thrall of gospel music into mainstream American life. She was raised in New Orleans in the Sanctified Church, which gave birth to both R & B and gospel. Unlike rhythm and blues, however, gospel remained true to its spiritual roots.
Though "saved" as a child and thus unwilling to sing either blues or jazz, Jackson's syncopated rhythms and powerful, grainy contralto betrayed traces of both (along with more than a little Bessie Smith) and were an inspiration to generations of singers, including Little Richard and Aretha Franklin.
The music in the play is very good, as it must be -- full of travail, hope, physical and expressive expansiveness and the thundering joy of faith.
Twenty-two rafter-shaking traditional spirituals like the terrific "Didn't It Rain" and "I've Been Buked" are punctuated by fine compositions by T.A. Dorsey, Kenneth Morris ("Dig a Little Deeper," "Yes, God Is Real") and W.H. Brewster, whose "How I Got Over" closed the first act and "Move on Up a Little Higher" the second.
In the end, the play's narrative is moderately informative, uncomplicated and straightforward but muddled in the telling and with spotty success in the editing.
Stolz has elected to dramatize a very few moments from a long and complicated life marked by intense striving, struggle and astonishing talent. The play highlights these moments with renditions of some of Jackson's best-known work. Too often, however, there seems to be little relationship between the action on stage and the music that accompanies it. In the end, "Mahalia" is less a biographical play than it is a lush feast of voice, dance and religious fervor of the kind of which Jackson might have partaken.
That's a problem. Director June L. Saunders Duell has chosen to focus almost exclusively on the musical voice of Mahalia Jackson, whose rich, magnificent contralto could fill a cathedral, shake its buttresses and drive the devil back into the abyss.
I thought Phobie Davis, in the title role, was superb. Her voice is rich, strong and powerfully controlled, while giving the impression of ecstatic abandon. She even looks a bit like the pretty young Jackson, although the wigs are wrong and the clothing out of sync with the styles of Jackson's time. I can't say that Davis' voice approximates the mind-altering power of the original, of course (whose could?), but it is a great voice and she is a fine and fearless performer.
Nevertheless, although I enjoyed her performance, I can, after all, get a CD (OK, harder than you'd think) and have the original send me rocketing through the ceiling like Zeus after a virgin.
This is a live performance, however, and that alone roils the blood and gets you twitchin' in a way recordings cannot. If the narrative had been better written and better integrated into what is essentially a concert, or if the evolution of Jackson's style were conveyed more clearly, this production would make better sense and better theater.
As it is, what we get is a rockin' down-home gospel love fest occasionally interrupted by references to others in her life.
For instance, Dee Lamonte Perry's eerie evocation of the young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looked and sounded enough like King to send a shiver up my timbers, but should he have been the focus of Act 2?
"Mahalia" doesn't hang together as a whole, then, but its limited educational aspect coupled with her music will satisfy many customers.
Glenda King (also inaccurately wigged) does a good job as Jackson's faithful friend and secretary, though the night I saw the play, something was going on offstage with King that provoked a few missed cues.
Gregg Anton Moore plays several roles: Cousin Fred, blues and gospel music composer Thomas Dorsey and two preachers, whom he distinguishes from one another nicely although their functions are not so different from one another. Sandra Clay does a turn as Jackson's "Aunt Duke" that slips back and forth between naturalism and some stiffness. The swell Prince Johnson gospel singers of the 1930s are played by Clay, Pamela Avent-Richardson and Monica M. Roland.
There are two accompanists. The first, an excellent pianist, is not listed in the program. The second is Warren S. Curtis, co-director of the Canisius College African-American Gospel Ensemble, whose 25 years in music ministry adds much to this production. He plays organist Blind Francis and seemed to have something to do with the missed cues.
RATING: *** STARS