BWW Review: LaChanze Heavenly in Encores!'s Terrific CABIN IN THE SKY
Anyone looking for an immediate and undeniable cure for their blues this weekend would be well advised to venture to City Center, where, about twenty minutes into the terrific Encores! concert mounting of Cabin in the Sky, LaChanze guides us on a trip to musical comedy heaven with her glimmering rendition of the Vernon Duke/John Latouche standard, "Taking A Chance On Love."
Up until that moment, the charming performer and accomplished actor is mostly regulated to the background while her colleagues play out bookwriter Lynn Root's setup of how a rascally gambler named "Little Joe" Jackson is dying after being slashed in a fight. After hearing his wife Petunia's (LaChanze) earnest prayer promising to reform him if he's brought back to her, a heavenly general makes a bet with Satan's son that if they let Joe live, his loving wife can keep him clean for six months. If not, they're both goners.
So when Little Joe rises from his deathbed and back into Petunia's arms, LaChanze's sunny voice and irresistible presence claims center stage, backed by conductor Rob Berman's 31 pieces playing Jonathan Tunick's snazzy orchestrations, and framed by choreographer Camille A. Brown's dancers gliding from elegant ballet couplings to low-down honky-tonk social dances.
It's five minutes of rapturous and uplifting musical theatre joy.
CABIN IN THE SKY is a musical that fits perfectly into the Encores! scheme of things; a show that, for various reasons, will most likely never be done in a high-profile revival, but has a score that's more than worthy to be heard from a full orchestra.
Premiering in 1940, it's part of the genre of Broadway musicals written, produced and directed by well-meaning white people trying to embrace African-American culture, and give jobs to talented underutilized performers, containing elements that wouldn't exactly go over well today.
The book has been edited for length by Artistic Director Jack Viertel and for cultural sensitivity by director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, with an eye toward being faithful to the period without offending modern ears and eyes. With the original orchestrations lost, Tunick's work embraces the period sounds of jazz and swing that were then immersing themselves into Broadway scores. Berman and Linda Twine have replaced the lost vocal arrangements with some gorgeous moments of gospel, especially when the company stops the show with rousing choruses of the traditional "Dry Bones."
The musical was originally written for Ethel Waters, and while LaChanze is a very different type of singer, her lovely and lively vocals add luster to the score and her solid acting chops give firm foundation to a role that can easily get sappy. In contrast to Encores!'s usual practice, the Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg standard, "Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe," written for Waters to sing in the 1943 movie version, has been added, giving LaChanze an additional memorable moment.
By comparison, Little Joe is a far less flashy role with just a bit of singing, but Michael Potts does a fine job as the nice guy earnestly trying to reform. Sizzle-voiced Carly Hughes jolts sexy electricity as Georgia Brown, the seductress who's the most potent temptation he tries to resist.
You couldn't find a more heavenly voice than that of Norm Lewis, whose warm authority makes him perfectly cast as The Lord's General. Likewise Chuck Cooper is a perfect choice and devilishly fun as Satan's offspring, especially when he and his trio of henchmen (Dennis Stowe, Tiffany Mann and Andre Garner) swing to the enormously catchy and clever "Do What You Wanna Do."
Billed as "a Negro fantasy" in 1940, Cabin in the Sky, though mildly dramatic, is more of a showcase for its stars than an attempt at serious musical theatre. At Encores!, the stars come through divinely as do Vernon Duke's sweet, sweet melodies.