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Review Roundup: Encores! CABIN IN THE SKY Opens at City Center

Harvey Blanks, Chuck Cooper, Marva Hicks, Carly Hughes, LaChanze, Norm Lewis, Forrest McClendon, and J.D. Webster star in Vernon Duke and John Latouche's jazz-filled fable Cabin in the Sky, running for seven performances for Encores! at New York City Center, now through February 14.

The 1940 musical is directed by Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson with choreography by Camille A. Brown. The original orchestrations for Cabin in the Sky no longer exist and will be recreated by Tony Award winner Jonathan Tunick.

Originally produced in 1940, Cabin in the Sky followed Porgy and Bess in celebrating African-American music and dance traditions. The musical tells the story of "Little Joe" Jackson, a charming ne'er-do-well who dies in a saloon brawl and is given six months on earth to prove his worth to the Lord's General (Norm Lewis) and his long-suffering wife Petunia (LaChanze), while resisting the temptations of the Devil's Head Man (Chuck Cooper).

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: This production - musically vibrant, dramatically a dud - for better and worse offers a prime example of the genre...The first act of Lynn Root's book...contains virtually no action and glides by rather sluggishly, enlivened only by a couple of standout songs: The most famous, "Taking a Chance on Love," is sung by Joe's wife, Petunia, played with sunny earnestness by LaChanze...LaChanze's bright, brassy voice does this number proud, although some of the soft soulfulness that Ethel Waters, the original Petunia, brought to her singing could profitably be blended into her clarion sound...Camille A. Brown, given the daunting task of choreographing the many dance interludes, does her best to keep things moving...If I closed my eyes, I think I might have had a better time at "Cabin in the Sky"...since the singing throughout is so pleasurable. Mr. Cooper and Mr. Lewis, both with lustrous voices, bring soaring, plush sound to their numbers.

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: A "no-gooder" gets a second chance to walk the straight and narrow in "Cabin in the Sky." Thanks to a joyous and star-studded Encores! concert staging, this 1940 Broadway artifact has another shot in the spotlight too...It all adds up to a tuneful curiosity and a hit-and-miss labor of love...Along with sinewy and spirited dances by Camille A. Brown, the standouts in this staging directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson are the perhaps lesser-known "Do What You Wanna Do," sung by Cooper and devilish aides who lend dazzling harmonies, and Hughes' saucy "Honey in the Honeycomb." That's the way of the world: As the tug-of-war between good and evil plays out, "Cabin in the Sky" takes wing and is at its best when it's most hellish.

Jesse Green, Vulture: The racial makeup of the original creative team would be of less significance if the result were a less icky story, but even as edited by the director Ruben Santiago-Hudson to avoid words like pickaninny, the script is full of faux-naïve folkloric touches that give off a strong odor of condescension today...To me, Santiago-Hudson's staging felt very flat and visually cluttered, emotionally withdrawn as if slightly embarrassed. Despite the plethora of talent in the cast, only Carly Hughes - a newcomer to me - seemed able to break through the fog...Happily, the choreography, by Camille A. Brown, did, too. It was really only in her vivid and unusual dances, based on contemporary social forms but feeling at the same time oddly angled and modern, that the world of A Cabin in the Sky achieved a specific physical life.

Matt Windman, AM New York: City Center's staging of the musical, which kicks off the new Encores! season, isn't so much a revival as it is a full-scale resuscitation...Some language from the original script that may seem objectionable (or at least questionable) today has been excised...With focused direction from Ruben Santiago-Hudson, elaborate dance choreography by Camille A. Brown and the characteristically excellent music direction of Rob Berman (who conducts a full orchestra), it is an admirable production of a dated, diffuse and difficult work. Potts, Cooper and Lewis are all fine, but the show truly belongs to LaChanze and her heartfelt, assured, altogether beaming performance (in a role made famous by Ethel Waters).

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Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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