Review: SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! at Ford's Theatre

Another DC theatre celebrates women's history; this time, Black women's history.

Review: SWEENEY TODD at Signature Theatre

Four lady singers dominate in the very best way SHOUT SISTER SHOUT!, a musical biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973). at Ford's Theatre through May 13. Sister Rosetta began singing in church alongside her mother, Katie Bell, who traveled and preached in the rural South before women could vote. As a young adult, Tharpe began to add musical disciplines, creating a blend of blues, swing, country, gospel, boogie-woogie, jazz, and rock and roll that younger (and usually white male) musicians learned and borrowed from. (Bonnie Raitt credits Tharpe with blazing the trail for female guitarists.) Carrie Compere hits it out of the park each time she sings one of Sister Rosetta's compositions as well as the many covers that are also in the show. (Audiences are likely to recognize some of those, e.g. Thomas E. Dorsey's "Take my Hand, Precious Lord.") Compere's got vocal range and power plus an actor's skill with the nuance of lyrics. And when, as Sister Rosetta, she says that music is her best way to serve God, it stays said.

Carol Dennis, as Sister Rosetta's mother, sings in a lower octave with parallel talent. Her rendition of "Lonesome Road" turns that 1928 ballad into a better song. Felicia Boswell's performance as Marie Knight, who partnered with Sister Rosetta onstage and in life from 1946 to 1950, helps show today's audiences why these women had so many hit records. Kelli Blackwell's take on Mahalia Jackson brings her to theatrical and gospel life even though Blackwell's voice doesn't actually resemble Jackson's--doesn't matter; Blackwell's got her essence and her moves. The ladies' acting skills stand out when they're not singing. Compere, Dennis, and Boswell find and express the pain and longing that's part of the lives of non-musicians and musicians alike. Compere's Rosetta struggles to find personal happiness which her success with the public does not automatically bring. Dennis shows Bell's love for her daughter, but also the strain placed on their relationship by Rosetta's path from the church. And Boswell relives Marie's energy and enthusiasm one minute and the impact of tragic loss the next.

In writing the show's book (influenced by Gayle F. Wald's biography, Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe), playwright Cheryl L. West may have included more information about Sister Rosetta than an audience unfamiliar with her can digest during a 2¾ hour production. But West cannot be blamed for detail overload because the life of Rosetta Tharpe is just so interesting: Tharpe sang in 1938 at Harlem's Cotton Club with Cab Calloway, got to Carnegie Hall, broadcast music to the Black troops on Armed Forces Radio during World War II (who knew that the Jim Crow era in the US found a way to segregate radio?! RADIO!), performed at the Grand Old Opry, and had a successful career making recordings and touring with her music despite the routine sexism and racism of her day.

The ten singer/actor/dancers in SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! do fabulous work as back up singers and choir members, dressers and dancers, but Director Kenneth L. Roberson and West give most of them solo moments too. Raquel Jennings joins Compere and company in singing the heck out of Tharpe's "Down by the Riverside." Joseph Anthony Byrd gives the audience old enough to remember him a wicked funny and accurate Cab Calloway (without so much as a "Hidee hidee hidee hi"), and Sinclair Mitchell, playing Tharpe's first husband, clarifies why she was right to leave him. Joe Mallon faithfully plays all the white guys that Sister Rosetta had to interact with during her career. And everybody has mastered William Carlos Angulo's terrific and historically accurate choreography; they can tap and jitterbug, and they can change gears and styles in a flash.

The lavish Costume Design of Alejo Vietti brings the gorgeous along with historically accurate style regardless of the decade being depicted. Sister Rosetta, who begins in a cotton housedress, wears sequins and satins and furs (oh my), and the rest of the cast shifts decades along with her. Favorites: the flat, canvas, laced shoes in which the chorus jitterbugs; those sparkling clips at the corners of the square-cut neckline of Sister Rosetta's royal blue dress; and the pink tux jackets in which the men give us the 1950s.

Tim Mackabee's useful set design made of louvred doors in a neutral color turns out to be versatile; and he makes fine use of Ford's turntable. Victor Simonson leads the 8-man band without whom this show would not be complete; high fives to guitarist Gerry Kunkel, doubling Sister Rosetta's acoustic and electric guitar mastery.

Director Roberson balances most of the show's moving parts quite well. He could have mitigated Alan C. Edwards lighting and Sun Hee Kil's sound designs, both of which create frequent, unpleasant sensory overload; Roberson did not. When the stage lights are aimed directly into the audience's eyes, it keeps them from seeing the show. When the amplifiers and sound levels are much louder than a home kitchen blender, instruments and voices are distorted, and the audience must endure immediate physical discomfort along with the threat of hearing loss. It makes little sense to create such barriers between the audience and the work of the performers, and this sound plot in particular insults this talented company of singers, all of whom have big voices and plenty of training in how to use them without amplification. The band, who are right there on the top half of the set, are made to sound as if they're playing in a sardine can in Baltimore. Let the church say amen. (The Sensory Friendly performance of SHOUT SISTER SHOUT! has been scheduled for the Saturday, May 6 matinee.)

Want more Sister Rosetta? Wald's 2007 book (updated after Sister Rosetta's 2018 posthumous election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) has been followed by an outstanding 2012 American Masters documentary for PBS about Tharpe, calling her "The Godmother of Rock and Roll," and for those who still collect music, find Sister Rosetta's discography here:

(Photo by André Chung)



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