BWW Review: A ROCKING & ROLLING DARING JOURNEY OF FAITH WITH MARIE AND ROSETTA at FreeFall Theatre
The time is 1946, the place a showroom in a modest funeral home. Let me reitterate; the time is 1946, a time where Racism is alive and well. 2 actresses take the stage and for the next 95 uninterrupted minutes we are strapped in for a ride unlike any other through faith, Gospel, love, family, and coming to grips with who you are, 1946 feels a lot like today in a show so resonating and moving if you blinked you'd miss everything. A modest funeral home amongst the casket sits an upright piano, a guitar case, an amplifier, a podium adorned with sheet music and numerous suitcases with clothes strewn about. This sets the scene for the pivotal and moving story laid before us. Eric Davis Artistic Director of freeFall in his opening curtain speech informed the audience that an immediate replacement was needed for the role of Rosetta Tharpe and within 4 rehearsals the replacement took the stage in front of a sold-out crowd on opening night. Now in times like these you sit and wonder about the forthcoming endeavor, but all worry subsided when the ladies playing Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight graced us with their presence and incapsulating beautiful vocals that rendered the room speechless with every note.
The lights go down, and left the audiences in pitch black surroundings, singing is heard and the lights come up on two women one seated and the other applying makeup to her counterpart. The absolutely beautiful Fuschia colored dress that sparkles with every step is pleasing to the eye, and really resonates with the kind of character Rosetta Tharpe is. Several times Rosetta has many poignant lines within the show and they resonate right to the heart strings like the tune of a beautiful melody. After her makeup is complete she looks in the mirror and says, "When I look up at heaven, people want to see heaven looking down." Again we come to terms with the fact that Racism is alive and well, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe known for mixing Gospel music with a little Soul and a little Blues is on a tour across the country. She makes it very clear that she is destined to play warehouses, barns, bars, anywhere that Black folks can congregate with no question. She has taken to hiring a young girl by the name of Marie Knight to sing right along with her, and play the piano.
Sister Rosetta isn't as good on the keys as Marie Knight but can sing the swing into anything, and play a guitar that would make Chuck Berry weep. Through several life lessons, we see a friendship and bond kindling between Marie and Rosetta, as Sister Rosetta tries to teach the more demure and naive Marie a thing or two about singing what people want to hear and putting a little "Joy" behind every line. When Marie questions her theories and her sinning ways Sister Rosetta responds by saying, "I found wherever there is joy there is a joke, and you have to find your cues." The first notes are played and Rosetta steps up to the podium to sing "This Train" and after the stunning vocals that erupted from Sister Rosetta the audience knew they were in for a treat. Again Sister Rosetta tries to enstill a light wisdom in Marie when she says, "You have to own up to your gifts girl...you got to know what they are or we got nothing."
There is nothing demure or naive about Marie as Sister Rosetta seemed to think. Marie just thought that naive and almost saintly is what Sister Rosetta was looking for, however, Marie isn't 17 at all like Rosetta was made to believe. Through life lessons and some revealing dialogue we realize there is more to Marie than meets the eye. Sister Rosetta begins to sing again and tries to add some rasp or "swing" to the lyrics giving them a little bit dirtier of an appeal, and when Marie begins again to question her, Sister Rosetta says, "God don't want the devil to have all the good music right?"
When the ladies come together to sing, "Didn't it Rain" their voices blended seamlessly and it was a pleasant sound to the ear. To play instruments and accompany onself is a feat in itself and the ladies do so effortlessly. It was like watching two old friends whom have made music for years together. Their vocals on "4 or 5 times" and "Strange Things" brought the house down. "Strange Things" not only brought the house down, but packed an emotional wallop of a lesson learned long and hard. A mention of Elvis struck a cord unlike any other, and Marie stated, "My parents died in a tragic fire, I had to bury my folks one day, and play Des Moines the next."
Illeana Kirven was a marvel as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Having stepped into the role with just four rehearsals was a feat of epic proportions. To sing and play with such grace, and humility would make even the most veteran performerweak in the knees. Her performance as the quick witted-smooth talking, wise diva is something not to be missed. She could sing the roof off the theatre and probably every building in the surrounding radius. Her rendition of "Strange Things" left chills up my spine and stunned with my mouth agape.
Hillary Scales-Lewis plays Marie Knight with such grace and candor. She's taken a softer side to life, but has a spunky disposition bubbling just below the surface. Her beautiful vocals lend well to "Peace in the Valley" and gave me a new appreciation for the song.
Both of these women should be commended for the incredible performances. In conjunction with The Hippodrome Theatre this is a show of grand proportions. Rarely do you find a stirring, moving, and beautiful story, that flows so well and like a well-oiled machine has every cog and wheel in place. Marie and Rosetta packs a wallop, and like a curve-ball has a pin drop moment that will render you speechless. I had not a lot of background on these two women going in, and for that I was emotionally, physically, and spiritually moved by the beautiful story of a pair of unlikely women destined to change the world through song. You would be doing yourself a dis-service to miss this show and I can guarantee tickets will be extremely hard to come by. I think the best way to sum this up extraordinary experience was beautifully stated by Matthew McGee freeFall's Marketing Director, "Sometimes you have to find someone with theatre in their bones..."These two women have that with gusto!
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is garnered as the Godmother of Rock and Roll, and Illeana and Hillary respectively have done this beautiful story justice, and Rosetta Tharpe would be exceptionally proud of their outstanding and moving performances, and like Sister Rosetta exclaimed "When I look up at heaven...people want to see heaven looking down..." well its safe to say Sister Rosetta is looking down and has the biggest smile on her face as both of these ladies sing the tune forever in her heart, and now enstilled in ours. FreeFall Theatre Company presents Marie and Rosetta through February 16, and continuing their "Decade of Daring," they produce one stunner after another, and this one is not to be missed. You can purchase tickets at freefalltheatre.com.
Photo Credit: Thee Photo Ninja