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‘How I Got Over’ is breathtaking portrayal of women in gospel music

Everyone needs a little gospel.

That’s the feeling walking out – strutting, as it were, for me, for most – of “How I Got Over,” the original new play written and directed by Paulette D. Harris, artistic director of the Paul Robeson Theatre where this exultant piece has been selling out all month. There I was – we were, in tandem – tapping my chest, nodding to the marching beats passed down by Frazier Thomas Smith’s extraordinary three-piece combo. If we didn’t get it walking in, we got it by our exit.

Harris has done something remarkable here, and it bears note. She crafted the script and musical numbers (culled from the African-American Songbook of gospel standards) from a series of interviews and discussions with five of Buffalo’s gospel legends. The ensemble’s five actors would develop their characters without the direct influence of their living counterparts, who would later come in to consult and, in essence, bless their interpretations.

This meta-narrative approach is familiar to that of Michael Bennett’s famous workshops for his groundbreaking “A Chorus Line,” which surveyed the intimate details of Broadway’s ensemble members, who until that point had been voiceless, cosmetic and serviceable. Giving them the spotlight would shine light on our own dark spots, giving us all the chance to be heard. It would elevate the entire image of the Broadway musical’s creative engine.

This presentation doesn’t quite live up to Bennett’s final product – not that it could, or should have, or even wanted to – but it does seem to strive for a similar process. It bends nonfiction, oral storytelling with cabaret, documentary and enough traditional musical theater to be accessible from a variety of entry points, and interesting in a number of different tropes.

Structurally, we visit with five of the city’s most respected names in gospel music: musician Smith, plus Bessie Patterson, Mary E. Ross, Rosetta B. Swain and Helen Porter. We hear of their upbringing in the church, how they learned music there and at home, in private lesson, how this spiritual home was both enforced upon and embraced by them. It abridges most chapters of their lives, but brings us up to speed on what they are today, which for everyone, is a remarkable epilogue: doctors, authors, recording artists, pastors, teachers, parents, godparents, community leaders and devout churchgoers.

The stories are at best heartwarming, even nostalgic for most of the audience, which audibly acknowledges the mentioned names of local churches, pastors, singers and choir directors, but there are simply too many of them. Harris could have edited this down quite a bit and still had plenty of folktales to go around. The first act is more than an hour long, and the entire evening clocks in at about two and a half hours, including intermission.

Some of this could be solved with more fluid transitions. Too often a monologue ends – sometimes, prematurely – and the actor walks off completely before the next actor comes on. It’s not a long walk but it feels epic after enough times. There are enough entry points in the set to have fun with people popping in and out of light, around corners and so on. Harris deftly seizes a few of these opportunities for theatrical moments early in the evening, but they wane over time.

These aren’t small concerns, but they’re less extraordinary than the strengths. This show goes the extra step to incorporate not only real-life stories of local living legends, and of a community as a hole, but the actual individuals on stage. The actors’ living counterparts sit in a row on stage right (Smith leads the phenomenal band upstage), and are brought up from time to time to sing alongside their own portrayals. Sometimes, an actor introduces a story and the real woman stands up to sing the song.

This meta approach is fun in an innovative-theatrical sense, but it’s more than that: It’s simply breathtaking. I got a huge kick watching these matriarchs, who are by now in their 60s and 70s, watch their own stories being told. Some nodded to the audience when their actor dropped a powerful line, as if to say “That’s right. That’s me.” Some shook their heads in honor of a life-changing moment. Some wiped tears.

I’ve never seen a show bridge fiction and nonfiction so graciously. Or make me – an obvious outsider to gospel – feel so compelled to move to a rhythm that crosses ethnic, geographic, spiritual and religious lines. You can’t stop this beat, and I wouldn’t want to try.

Review

3.5

What: “How I Got Over,” musical

Where: Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Ave.

When: Through Sunday

Info: 135 minutes long with intermission. Tickets are $22-$25. Visit aaccbuffalo.org.

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