THEATER REVIEW: “Marie and Rosetta” @ Cleveland Play House by Laura Kennelly

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 2/11

Marie and Rosetta, the musical drama rocking the Cleveland Play House through Sun 2/11, celebrates the amazing, and too-little-acknowledged, talent and influence of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

All I can say is “Hallelujah” and “It’s about time.” Just take a look at a YouTube video of her singing “Didn’t it rain, children? Rain, oh yes!” in 1964 at the British Blues & Gospel Train Concert. Gush gush, she’s got it all — blues, jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues,virtuosic guitar chops, and enough personality to thrill everyone. She’s to be inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on April 14 in Cleveland.

And to show us why she’s a major founder of today’s rock & roll and all that followed (if we needed to be shown, and I did), playwright George Brant and director Neil Pepe offer a glimpse into her life and music in this carefully crafted one-act musical drama. When the play opens it’s 1946. Sister Rosetta (Miche Braden), a world-famous singer, is seeing if Marie Knight (Chaz Hodges) will be a fitting partner for another  “comeback” tour. The setting is a Mississippi funeral parlour because, as Sister Rosetta explains, when you are black and on the road you have to depend on your own community. So, with caskets around them, Marie first applies makeup to Sister Rosetta (Marie’s first test) and then the audition begins.

Marie’s still a dedicated gospel performer and Hodges conveys the younger woman’s essential personal and vocal sweetness. The older, more worldly Sister Rosetta’s mix of the church songs and secular music offers a sharp contrast in world views that the two must reconcile. Strong vocalists, both Braden and Hodges sing with conviction as the tryout continues. The two eventually decide to perform together. The story is slight, but the ending is touching, and drawn from what really happened. I don’t want to say more because it’s fun to be surprised.

A powerful, rich-voiced vocalist, Braden makes the most of Sister Rosetta’s outgoing personality. Songs (often with Sister Rosetta twanging madly on an electric guitar) include standards such as “This Train,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?,” “Sit Down,” and the racy “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.”

Onstage but behind a screen, Katreese Barnes (piano) and KJ Denhert (guitar) skillfully handle instrumental duties. This works fairly well, except when Braden turns away from the audience to hide the fact that she’s not really playing the guitar. I’d rather have had obvious faking so I could watch her face as she sang.

The production runs smoothly and it’s easy to stay engaged as the women share their stories. Music director Seth Farber, costume designer Dede Ayite, scenic designer Riccardo Hernández and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind all contributed to bringing us back to that earlier time.

BOTTOM LINE: What works best about this engaging show is that it turns our attention to the accomplishment of Sister Rosetta, a woman who showed in her music that she did not feel she had to hide either her joy or her faith or to choose between the church and the club. Her original  and unconventional mix of feeling and soul–a music with raw energy and complex rhythms–caught the imagination of the next generation — Elvis Presley for sure, but also the Beatles. Thank you, Sister Rosetta.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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