BWW Review: Gospel, Storytelling, and Fabulous Hats with Taproot Theatre's Musical CROWNS
"Crowns" is a feel-good musical about hats. But it's also so much more than hats, in the way "The Vagina Monologues" is about more than just the female anatomy. Now performing at the Taproot Theatre, "Crowns" delights in this colorful production about history, experience, and culture.
Originally adapted from Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's book, "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats", Regina Taylor's musical tells stories through dance, preaching, singing, and reenactment. Structurally, an ensemble of muses try and teach something to jaded, Brooklynite teen Yolanda (Bethanie Willis). They drag her to church, they tell her stories about hats and their significance while she rolls her eyes and stares at her iPod, and they persist. There are five muses: Mother Shaw (Tracy Michelle Hughes), Mabel (Marlette Buchanan), Velma (Kristen Natalia), Wanda (Bretteney Beverly) and Jeanette (Be Russell). Though it's left unclear whether these folks are supposed to be spirits, or if they are living, breathing family members, they carry the narrative like a Greek Chorus, often breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience.
The stories told by the women all center around the significance of a hat, whether it be as the essential piece of the Church uniform, the expensive item purchases by a black woman in a once whites-only store, or the protective helmet used by a young teen to reclaim her identity. The stories have a decent variety in tone and content, but Act II has a much more engaging structure than Act I. Act II takes its time to flush out the stories so the audience can connect with the story-teller, and each tale has room to breathe. There are more costume changes, established environments, and it feels more episodic. Act II contains twice as many songs as Act I, mainly due to the fact that Act I brims with storytelling. There are lots of stories being told about hats, many of which start to bleed together. One can only hear the word "hat" being said so many times before the stories feel redundant. Given, too, that the muses in Act I are not permitted as many costume changes, there's more of a sense of monotony, which, married to the mild redundancy of the storytelling could make an audience member feel sleepy.
Hard to believe, given how beautiful these performer's singing voices are. This is a vocally gifted cast, and any gospel fan should seek it out for the singing alone. Director Faith Bennett Russell brought together a vivacious cast that clearly has fun with the material. However, Yolanda's character portrayal stuck out as a bit odd. Yolanda was perpetually annoyed for the entirety of Act I, quietly weeping for the bulk of Act II until a very sudden emotional shift at the tail end that does not feel earned. It's a shame, because the actors telling the stories feel authentic; Willis' Yolanda cycles through extreme and stereotypical teenage attitudes, each of which is played for the back row. Willis' can obviously sing, but this Yolanda tried to belt her emotions as loudly as her musical numbers, and it does not work.
Taproot Theatre encourages audience members to come sporting their favorite hats (how fun!), and the show will absolutely make you want to go out and buy a big, outlandish of your own. Taproot Theatre's "Crowns" is a spirited production with a lot of heart, despite a few pacing issues. For great singing, decent storytelling, and fabulous costumes, I give Taproot Theatre's vibrant "Crowns" a happy B+. I tip my cap to this loud and proud adaptation!
"Crowns" performs at the Taproot Theatre's Jewell Mainstage Theatre through April 28, 2018. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.taproothteatre.org.