The cast is sensational as all get-out and the life story they have to tell, that of Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), is well worth a stage or screen bio, but the late great gospel/R&B pioneer deserves far better than the ill-conceived World Premiere musical Shout Sister Shout.

Rather than do the groundbreaking Sister Rosetta the justice she is due, director Randy Johnson and book writer Cheryl L. West serve up a silly if not downright ludicrous “creators’ concept” that should have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Sister Rosetta (Tracy Nicole Chapman), dead of a stroke at the age of fifty-eight, finds herself informed (at the Pearly Gates no less) of a “soul who needs some divine attention,” a scraggly-haired singer-songwriter named Isaiah (Logan Charles) who’s about to off himself unless Rosetta can “take him on a little excursion” and prove to him that music makes a life worth living.

Since Rosetta would rather go to heaven than burn in hell for all eternity, what’s the Arkansas-born gospel-blues-singer-guitarist who taught Chuck Berry, Elvis, and Little Richard a thing about rockin’-and-rollin’ to do but escort a skinny white boy down her own personal memory lane?

Rather than the deeper, more detailed and nuanced treatment that is Rosetta’s due, Shout Sister Shout gives us mere highlights of her roller-coaster of a life.

Tharpe’s evangelist/musician mother Katie Bell (Yvette Cason), her philandering male chauvinist first husband Reverent Tharpe (Michael A. Shepperd), and gospel/R&B singer Marie Knight (Angela Teek Hitchman) all figure prominently in Sister Rosetta’s life, with African-American legends Mahalia Jackson (Cason) and Little Richard (Thomas Hobson) popping up along the way.

Given its running time of under ninety minutes before an intermission adds another fifteen, Shout Sister Shout can only skim the surface of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s fifty-eight years (not counting its off-topic detours into Isaiah’s fictional family dysfunction), reducing Gayle Wald’s 264-page biography to a less-than-Cliff’s Notes look at an icon’s life.

 Chapman’s feisty, cantankerous, big-voiced Rosetta is dynamic as all get-out, but if you’re going to tell the story of a guitar virtuoso, for Sister’s sake, don’t have the performer playing her fake-strum a stringless guitar.

Triple-threat stunners Cason, Thomas Hobson (who’s also Levi), Hitchman (who also plays Leannie), Boise Holmes (Blues Man), Shepperd, and Armando Yearwood, Jr. (Lucky, Stage Manager) warrant better material.

So too does Charles, a power-voiced charmer even in the downer of a role he’s been given, one that seems an unnecessary ploy to make white theatergoers feel at home (as if all-black casts had stopped Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Color Purple, or The Wiz from attracting racially diverse SRO houses on Broadway and beyond).

At the very least, Shout Sister Shout serves up a dozen-and-a-half mid-20th-century R&B-gospel classics including Rosetta’s charted singles “Strange Things Happening Every Day” and “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air,” though a couple of Melissa Manchester originals feel like they’ve dropped in from another show, i.e. Isaiah’s.

Keith Young’s choreography is lively and infectious, Rahn Coleman’s musical direction and his onstage live band are as good as it gets, and the same can be said for production design team Steven C. Kemp (scenic design), Dana Rebecca Woods (costume design), Jared A. Sayeg (lighting design), Jon Gottleib (sound design), and Carol F. Doran (hair and wig design), but as with Rosetta Tharpe herself, but all these L.A. treasures deserve a show at the level of their talents.

Jill Gold is production stage manager. Tyler W. Rhodes is associate director. Joe Witt is general manager, Brad Enlow is technical director, and Chris Cook is production manager. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA.

Over the past ten years, Pasadena Playhouse has debuted one absolutely terrific musical after another, from Sister Act to Baby It’s You to Vanities to Twist: An American Musical to Ray Charles Live to Mask and more. If only Shout Sister Shout could be added to that list.

follow on twitter small

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
July 30, 2017
Photos: Jim Cox Photography


Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.