Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: (Montreal) The Mahalia Jackson Musical

Ranee Lee with the IGS Choir (photo by George Allister)

The Sound of God
The music is there, the text is not
by Caitlin Murphy

Musical biographies are tough.  Thus my suspicion heading into the Segal Centre and Copa de Oro’s co-production of The Mahalia Jackson Musical that the piece would succeed more as a concert than a play.  In the hands of celebrated jazz performer Ranee Lee, music fans are indeed generously indulged, but theatre-lovers are left hungry.

Written and directed by Roger Peace, much of this rather bald biography of Mahalia Jackson, “the queen of gospel,” is told through direct-to-audience narration. 

Considering the musical genre it celebrates though, the play often felt oddly restrained. 

Inserted along the way are some dramatized scenes from Mahalia’s life, and of course several gospel favourites, including “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “We Shall Overcome.”  With nine members of the Imani Gospel Singers choir on stage, a grand piano majestically ruled by musical director, Taurey Butler, and a three-piece band, the play is musically lush and bursting with talent.

Considering the musical genre it celebrates though, the play often felt oddly restrained.  The choir’s choreography sometimes grew repetitive or their contributions lacked expected oomph.  In a Mardi Gras scene, for instance, choir members handed out a few strings of beads to front-row audience members; one yearned to see them draped in these themselves, dancing in the aisles, full of irrepressible, foot-stomping joy.  A few directorial choices like this – to mute rather than heighten – were a little mystifying.

As an actor, Lee is strongest when the text is most supportive, giving her more to do than straight-up narration.  These are predominantly comedic moments, when Lee’s timing is adept, and Mahalia’s feisty determination is allowed to shine through.

Tristan D. Lalla and Adrienne Mei Irving capably tackle the roles of the various men and women in Jackson’s life, but this narrative conceit felt under-explored and the actors thus under-used.  Rather generic scenes of domestic dispute or childhood memories didn’t add much to our specific sense of Mahalia’s life or character.  

In the evening’s most sacred moments and the play’s most successful, Lee stands alone next to the grand piano –  she and Butler independently, gorgeously spot-lit – and delivers sublime renditions of “Summertime” and “Motherless Child” that took my breath away.   Lee is a beautiful woman, and Butler an imposing man.  I wished in these moments that the play could instantly strip itself back to Mahalia, her piano player, the songs she loved and the reasons she sang them.

Essentially, the challenge in musical biography is two-fold: how to infuse a chronicle – mere event and sequence – with significance and beauty beyond itself?  And, how to match the artistry of the music and musicians with that of the dramatic story-telling?  The focus on the music is of course essential, but in any self-defined hybrid piece, artistic attention must somehow be divided equally, else the results will always feel lop-sided.

Some dramaturgical interference that may have helped:  anchoring the play’s narration in a specific story-telling moment, giving Mahalia reason to speak to us, and more fully embedding the songs in a dramatic context.  Embracing some of the thornier issues in Jackson’s lifetime – the hypocrisy inherent in accepting black people as entertainers, while still rejecting them as full citizens, for instance –  would also have added complexity and depth.

Indisputable in all this of course are the vocal power, seductive charms and stunning musicianship of Ranee Lee.  And if one puts aside one’s craving for the story-telling and stage-craft that are unique to the theatre, one can still go home with a lot.  But, I guess my honest feeling is that one shouldn’t have to.

To March 24
Read also: Richard Burnett's profile of director Roger Peace

1 comment:

  1. It must be said that Tristan's performance as all 4 characters that he portrayed was nothing short of stellar work. Such a great actor. His embodiment of Martin Luther King Jr. will stay with me for years to come, I am sure.


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