Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mahalia: A Gospel Musical, Cleveland Play House

(NaTasha Yvette Williams and C.E. Smith)

Q. When is a musical play not a play?
A. When it’s a concert.

And that is the best definition of Mahalia, A Gospel Musical, now at the Cleveland Play House. If you’re a fan of gospel music, there are a couple dozen Mahalia favorites sung by the supremely talented NaTasha Yvette Williams.

But if you’re a fan of theater that explores character and deals with personal conflicts and such, you’re out of luck. As written (?) by Tom Stolz, the book has as much depth as a Highlights Magazine “Black History Month” profile.

Sure, we’re used to bio-plays being shallow, and usually featuring a lot of bead-stringing as the author dutifully ticks off the milestones of a famous person’s career. But in terms of meaningful substance that we haven’t heard before, Mahalia is thinner than the Cleveland Browns’ Super Bowl scrapbook.

None of that should obscure the fact that Williams absolutely nails the gospel songs she sings. Using her beautifully-controlled contralto voice to dig deep into the lower notes (on, say, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”) as well find the higher pitches, Williams does justice to all the tunes including a stirring rendition of Mahalia’s signature song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

While she doesn’t capture the unique quality of Jackson’s voice that made her the “Queen of Gospel Music,” Williams has her own strengths that soon make that disparity irrelevant.

But the sad part is we never get much of a clue about Mahalia the person, aside from her spirituality. Neither of Mahalia’s two marriages becomes a dramatic factor in this show. Indeed, according to this production, Jackson was solely a gospel singer dedicated to singing and going to church, with no personal life outside of some mildly joshing interactions with her pianist Mildred (overacted broadly by Terry Burrell).

Other secondary characters, such as gospel composer Thomas Dorsey, are portrayed in fleeting moments by C.E. Smith, who also renders a perfunctory and rushed reading of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That crops up because Mahalia sang “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” at the March on Washington. A fourth actor, Jmichael (not a typo), plays a not terribly necessary character named Francis.

So if you’re up for an evening of great gospel singing by one person, and a concluding choral version of “Move On Up a Little Higher” by a local choir (that changes at every performance), Mahalia is just your ticket. But if you want more meat than that, it looks like you’ve been ‘buked.

Mahalia: A Gospel Musical
Through February 22 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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