CPH’s ‘Marie and Rosetta’ never quite rocks one’s soul
By Bob Abelman
Over the years, the Cleveland Play House has staged its share of bio-musicals – those mini-concerts disguised as historical documentaries masquerading as dramas about the lives and influence of music pioneers.
Mahalia Jackson (“Mahalia: A Gospel Musical”), Bessie Smith (“The Devil’s Music”), Roland Hayes (“Breath and Imagination”) and Ella Fitzgerald (“Ella”) have all been profiled and portrayed with their songs performed, often in one act and during Black History month.
Only a few shows of this ilk actually manage to find that elusive sweet spot where an intriguing and well-written personal history tells a great story and riveting musical performance provides great storytelling.
George Brant’s “Marie and Rosetta,” currently on stage at Cleveland Play House, is not one of them.
The 90-minute production premiered Off-Broadway in 2016 and employs the same staging and creative team here, including director Neil Pepe, scenic designer Riccardo Hernández, costume designer Dede Ayite, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and sound designer Steve Kennedy.
It tells the tale of the electric guitar-wielding “Godmother of Rock & Roll” and 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rosetta Tharpe and her young protégée Marie Knight.
The play opens in a Mississippi funeral home in 1946 on the night of their first performance together and ends in 1973, upon Sister Rosetta’s death. We meet the two women as they rehearse and prepare to brave the indignities of Jim Crow laws – such as having to rehearse and sleep in a funeral home – while touring in the American South.
In a Down Beat magazine review of a 1955 Tharpe and Knight performance, music critic Nat Hentoff observed that the two women “build each number toward a swinging emotional climax that eventually draws everyone in the room into the act with them, clapping, beating their feet, nodding.” And they stir the white audience, he wrote, right out of their “sophisticated complacency.”
Such was not the case during the opening night production of “Marie and Rosetta.”
Miche Braden, as the brash Sister Rosetta, certainly has the singing chops required to do Tharpe justice in the 14 tunes that comprise the show’s song list. Her powerhouse voice has become even richer, more textured and expressive than when she last graced the CPH stage as Bessie Smith in its 2013 production of “The Devil’s Music.”
As a result, her performance of such standards as “Sit Down,” “Rock Me” and “Didn’t It Rain?” are standouts. And her harmonies with Chaz Hodges – whose voice is gorgeous but lacks the strength of Marie Knights’ to hold its own against Braden’s Sister Rosetta – are impeccable, particularly during “Four or Five Times.”
What keeps these songs and their performance from stirring the audience is not so much Braden’s inability to play the guitar that was so much a part of Sister Rosetta’s persona, but her inability to convincingly mimic the playing. She is so hamstrung by this instrument that its playing is conspicuously limited to only four songs, during which the staging keeps her at an awkward and disengaging angle to the audience in an unsuccessful effort to hide the charade. And it throws off her otherwise fine acting.
KJ Denhert does the actual guitar playing and Katreese Barnes plays piano, both superb and from behind Hernández’s simple funeral parlor set that comes equipped with a piano, chair and multiple coffins but is void of anything visually theatrical to facilitate the storytelling.
This and a script thin on biographical details and historical context keeps the production as a whole from being particularly engaging. Still, its scattering of insights of life on the road and the developing relationship between Marie and Rosetta, albeit abruptly end-loaded in the script, keeps it interesting.
Although we don’t learn much, most of us learn more than what we knew about these artists going into “Marie and Rosetta.” And we leave having been serenaded by two very talented performers. So, this is not a great bio-musical, but it is a good evening’s entertainment.
“Marie & Rosetta”
WHERE: Cleveland Play House, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Feb. 11
TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $105, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on January 27, 2018.
Lead image: Chaz Hodges, from left, as Marie and Miche Braden as Sister Rosetta. Photo / Roger Mastroianni