In the 1930s and 40s, the infectiously joyful Sister Rosetta Tharpe took gospel music out of churches, into nightclubs and on to concert stages backed by big bands. What had been strictly religious became mainstream. The groundbreaking performer appealed to rhythm and blues audiences influencing not only fellow purveyors of the material but also the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Tharpe heard Marie Knight singing backup for Mahalia Jackson in New York and invited her to go on the road. They toured almost ten years before popularity waned and her protégé tried to crossover to popular music. It would be another ten years before a resurgence of the blues, including gospel, saw Tharpe once again in demand. She died in 1973 of diabetes complications and according to this play, was buried in an unmarked grave. I can find no confirmation of this.
Marie and Rosetta is a fictionalized account of the relationship between Knight and Tharpe, with some sketchy biography and a great deal of gospel performance, soulful and rousing. Both Kecia Lewis (Marie) and Rebecca Naomini Jones (Tharpe) sing (well) to invisible accompaniment by the excellent Felicia Collins-guitar and Deah Harriott-piano. It should be noted to their credit the onstage actresses actually appear to be playing.
As written, Marie is a young wife with a husband and two children whose high church background makes her at first object to the new employer’s take on disseminating the word of God. She’s been raised with the threat of sin, feels Tharpe makes the music sound “dirty”, and is more accustomed to traditional artists like Jackson whose name comes up more than once. The supposition plays well. Both women have genuine faith. Tharpe gradually wins Marie over to what her mother calls music “with hips” and they have a helluva time performing some of her best known numbers together.
We hear about Tharpe’s childhood start with an evangelistic singing group in which “Mother Bell” (Katie Bell Nubin) performed. Allusions to such as The Dorsey Band and The Cotton Club are alas, given short shrift. Prejudice is well illustrated not only by dialogue, but also a funeral home in Mississippi where they find themselves bunking for lack of accommodations. Tharpe, ready to curl up in a coffin, appreciates space and silence. Knight’s reaction elicits the reality of touring in a segregated south.
Reference to a succession of unsuccessful marriages, including a preacher with whom Tharpe travelled gives Knight an opportunity to admit she did the same and for her boss to be maternal. They grow close.
Then there’s a sea change. We’re not exactly where or when we thought we were. The idea is good, the transition bumpy, dialogue less secure. Marie and Rosetta is musically entertaining and well written to that point. Both actresses do a fine job, with Rebecca Naomi Jones excelling in the outsized, yet devout role. Lyrics resonate. Jones can be as moving as she can be irresistibly euphoric.
Director Neil Pepe does an adroit job of giving the women small natural business and of indicating changes in their relationship. Maria’s lightening switch from being awed to obstreperous is a bit unbelievable, while her unexpectedly taking to the new musical approach feels real. Rosetta is warm and well etched. Pacing is deft.
The preparation room of Walter’s funeral home Set by Riccardo Hernandez manages to seem accurate, ignominious, and innately spooky. Dede M. Ayite’s Costumes seem exactly right. SCK Sound does an excellent job with dense music emanating from elsewhere.
Photography by Ahron R. Foster
Marie and Rosetta by George Brant
Directed by Neil Pepe
Featuring Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis
Atlantic Theater Company
330 West 20th Street
Through October 16, 2016
Before Howard Ashman and Alan Menken hit pay dirt with Little Shop of Horrors, long before they became synonymous with reinvigorating Disney animated movies, 1979’s God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, based on the Kurt Vonnegut book, appeared briefly Off Broadway. Vonnegut’s sharp irreverence, couched first in science fiction, then as fantasy and finally as wry, humanist observation, was almost a rite of passage for a generation of smart young people enmeshed in alternative culture.
The author was older than many admirers, often referring to traumatic World War II experience beyond their ken, but shared with them a social conscience that emerged like a pendulum swinging between cynicism and idealism. This volume in particular might have been written by Bernie Sanders supporters.
Santino Fontana (Eliot)and the office staff
In the first minutes of the production, Eliot Rosewater (Santino Fontana) enters with a pratfall and haplessly donates $50,000 of his family’s foundation to a poet seeking immeasurably less.“Go and tell the truth,” he instructs the nonplussed writer. He’s devoted and he’s loaded/So we haven’t a complaint…sings his staff.
The Rosewater Foundation, created by Eliot’s U.S. Senator father (Clark Johnson) to help descendants avoid paying taxes on the estate, is based in New York City, not Rosewater, Indiana where the family manse stands empty. Though it’s “handled” by a large legal firm, Eliot has inherited control. He wears the crown uncomfortably and is often drunk. Obsessions include Volunteer Fire Departments (we learn why later) and a science fiction novelist named Kilgore Trout who is quoted and later appears as the voice of “real” sanity. (James Earl Jones). A psychiatrist deems Eliot incurable for reasons of not gratefully toeing the gilded line.
Despite, or perhaps because of, advantages, the young man couldn’t be more of the people. As written and expertly acted, Eliot seems like sweet, slightly obtuse Charlie Brown with an adult conscience. Equally uneasy in the upper echelon lifestyle curetted by loving wife Sylvia (Brynn O’Malley), frustration builds until our hero decides he must go in search of his destiny and disappears. Letters arrive from Hamlet to Ophelia, the escapee’s perception of himself and Sylvia. The other is Volunteer Fire Departments. We learn about this fixation later.
Skylar Astin (Norman Mushari)
Meanwhile, Norman Mushari (Skylar Astin), a young lawyer at the firm, learns of a codicil in the Rosewater Foundation set-up that states Eliot can be replaced by another family member if he’s proved mentally unstable. The ambitious associate recalls what his professors told him about getting ahead in law. “… just as a good airplane pilot should always be looking for places to land, so should a lawyer be looking for situations where large amounts of money were about to change hands.” One practically sees Eureka! flash over his head.
Leap-frogging Volunteer Fire Departments across the country (including a delightfully staged musical number), Eliot also has a eureka moment and returns to his depressed hometown. He opens the house, sets up an office, and becomes Rosewater’s defacto therapist and philanthropist (black telephone), as well as a member of the Volunteer Fire Department (red telephone.)
Brynn O’Malley (Sylvia) and the townspeople
We meet and compassionately hear from raggle-taggle citizens who grow to think of him as a Saint. Aspiring to be supportive, Sylvia arrives, and tries, how she tries to fit in! Eventually, however, his patrician spouse has a meltdown at a meticulously planned soiree when her guests prefer Cheese Nips to pate and coke to champagne. Brynn O’Malley’s deadpan apoplexy is as convincing as her love for and incomprehension of Eliot.
Kate Wetherhead (Caroline Rosewater), Kevin Del Aguila (Fred Rosewater)
While Eliot is altruistically fulfilling himself, Norman has found Fred (Kevin Del Aguila) and Caroline (Kate Wetherhead) Rosewater, in, wait for it, Pisquontuit, Rhode Island. The couple are bickering malcontents not adverse to swindling rich relatives. Both actors are marvelous in the deftly staged “Rhode Island Tango” and apple-pie-corny “Plain Clean Average Americans.” It appears to be a slam dunk, but of course, is not.
Narrative displays several signature Vonnegut themes, the familiar device of God-like narration (James Earl Jones), and characters found in other books by the author. Lack of this awareness in no way impedes enjoyment. There’s also a brief scene from one of Kilgore Trout’s space adventures – a disconnect, but very funny. Howard Ashman’s book and lyrics are literate, specific, and filled with heart. Alan Menken’s music is, well, fine. This was their first collaboration.
Santino Fontana, James Earl Jones (Kilgore Trout) and company members
Santino Fontana’s embodiment of Eliot is consistently engaging and sympathetic. Really, one wants to take him home to mom. The actor is completely natural and has an appealing voice.
Skylar Ashton (Norman Mushari), who looks too much like Fontana, is a solid player but could have more fun with numbers like “Mushari’s Waltz” in which his ballet seems restrained.
James Earl Jones literally lends resonance to the piece. His Kilgore Trout is a credible curmudgeon.
Of the townsfolk, Rebecca Naomi Jones (Mary Moody), Liz McCartney (Diana Moon Glampers), and Kevin Ligon (Selbert Peach) shine.
Director Michael Mayer uses Donayle Werle’s simply structured Set with skill and aesthetic variety. A fire pole and hose are used to great effect. Small stage business adds immeasurably. Heart and humor go hand in hand.
Choreography by Lorin Latarro is beguiling. Leon Rothenberg’s Sound Design couldn’t be crisper or better balanced.
Another terrific production by Encores.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: The Company
New York City Center Encores! Off-Center presents
Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Book & Lyrics-Howard Ashman
Additional Lyrics Dennis Green
Directed by Michael Mayer
131 West 55th Street