Theater review: ‘Marie and Rosetta’ rocking the Stern Theatre


The venerable old Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto is rockin’ these days as TheatreWorks offers the Bay Area an opportunity to learn about guitar-playing Gospel/R&B singing icon, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and her protégé, Marie, in an uneven production of “Marie and Rosetta” that was originally created for TheatreWorks’ 2015 New Works Festival by George Brant.

The first impression audiences get as they settle into their seats are the warm purple- and rose-hued walls of scenic designer Christopher Fitzer’s expansive set. That … and the shock of seeing a smattering of sturdy mahogany coffins onstage.

This, everyone soon learns, is a typical rehearsal room, dressing room — and overnight accommodations — for black performers who venture into the South during the turbulent era of the 1940s – and beyond.

But while Sister Rosetta Tharpe is no longer bothered by such surroundings, it’s a chilling wake-up call for the young singer named Marie Knight who she has invited to join her to sing together for that night’s appearance and, potentially future joint collaborations.

But things get off to a rocky start when the unflappable, hip-swirling, guitar-playing Sister Rosetta tries to get some of the starch out of her uptight, inexperienced young vocalist. Rosetta’s as likely to belt out the spiritual “This Train” and the unsophisticated “Sit Down (You’re Rockin’ the Boat)” as she is to sing a purely Gospel tune. But Marie only sings church hymnals like “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” and finds some of Rosetta’s onstage antics distasteful.

Obviously, it’s going to take awhile for this twosome to work out their musical (and life experience) differences and sing duets together.

That’s pretty much the gist of this slight, but affecting story, although the last 20 minutes or so is sobering and, unfortunately, not nearly as rewarding.

The 90-plus minute production is performed without an intermission to preserve the vibrancy and intensity of Brant’s creation. But what it lacks is a rousing finale – no matter that it didn’t fit the narrative — that would send theatergoers into the lobby snapping their fingers and dancing a little boogie all the way to their cars.

This production is lovingly guided by retiring artistic director Robert Kelley. He points out in his program notes that TheatreWorks has been combining the two art forms of music and drama since its inception in 1970 with the musical, “Popcorn” to its highly successful, Tony Award-winning production of “Memphis.”

So, while Brandt’s storyline isn’t all that compelling, the two performers in it, Michelle E. Jordan as Sister Rosetta and Marissa Rudd as Marie, are.

Jordan has all the swagger and chutzpah of Rosetta, so it’s a hoot watching her prance around the stage whopping and vocalizing, all the while strumming both a regular, later an electric, guitar like a Jimi Hendrix or a Chuck Berry.

It’s important to give recognition to the two musicians – TheatreWorks’ musical director William Liberatore and Schuyler McFadden — who actually play both the piano and guitar (sight unseen) for the two women who mime as if they are …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment

      

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