Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Welcome Home, Marian Anderson
Also see Tim's reviews of Wittenberg, M. Butterfly and The Price
Bristol Riverside Theatre's Welcome Home, Marian Anderson, a bio-drama about the Philadelphia-born contralto, focuses on Anderson's life in the 1930s, from before she rose to fame in Europe through her historic Easter Sunday concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, beginning with Anderson waiting to perform for a crowd of 75,000 and flashing back to the start of her career. The entire story is told through three actors, with Vanessa Shaw in the title role (Ms. Shaw also wrote the play). The first half of the evening is interesting, but little can be said beyond that.
Marian Anderson tells us early on in the play that "it's always a battle with the voice," and indeed Ms. Shaw seemed to be waging that war before our eyes at times; occasionally, her voice sounded shaky, almost as if she were a touch under the weather. The story followed Marian through her rocky start in Germany where she teamed up with trainer and dialect coach Kosti, played by Mark Edward Lang. And, though it was interesting to see an African-American singer blossoming in Europe, mostly because her native country rejected her on the basis of her skin color, there does not appear to be much more to the story, and it is difficult to see what appealed to Ms. Shaw so strongly that she felt the need to dramatize this period in Anderson's life.
By the second act, however, everything begins to turn around. Ms. Shaw's voice was spot-on, her interpretations of everything from aria to spiritual gorgeous and moving. It is apparent that the difficulties she evinced in the first act were to some extent deliberate, as though we the audience were privileged to watch as Marian's full vocal talents unfold before our eyes. Not only does Shaw's voice come into full force, but the acting skills of the entire cast are pushed to the limit. By the end of the evening, all three actors have spoken a minimum of four languages, and even when playing English-speaking characters, the men move through a plethora of different accents and dialects. Mr. Lang, in particular, displays incredible skills as a character actor; his ability to shift from one man to another to yet another and then back to the first again, all in a span of seconds, is fascinating to watch. Each and every character he plays, even if the character appears for only thirty seconds, has its own dialect, posture and pitch to the voice, and not once does he confuse one with another. His portrayal of Kosti is sincere and touching, a delightful foil for the strong-willed yet sensitive Anderson.
The second half of the play also contains some of the strongest writing. Perhaps the highlight of the show comes as Ms. Anderson is attempting to flee Germany, which has come under Nazi control. At the border, she and Kosti are stopped by a Nazi guard who insists she prove herself a singer by giving a command performance; if she fails to convince the border guard, the price will be her life. The silence that fills the house before she finds the courage to sing is as powerful as the spiritual that saves her life, and Ivan Thomas's performance as the Nazi guard is chilling, particularly after watching him spend the majority of the show as her accompanist. This is followed almost immediately by a vignette, in America this time, where she is checked into an Indiana hotel. The concierge, after enumerating all of the rules and regulations about a Negro guest not being allowed in the public areas of the hotel, then disarmingly confesses that he and his family have tickets to her concert and they are looking forward to a triumphant evening. Which, ultimately, Welcome Home, Marian Anderson comes close to being itself, even if you have to wait for after intermission to fully appreciate the evening.
Welcome Home, Marian Anderson runs through February 10 at Bristol Riverside Theatre. Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2pm, and Sunday matinee at 3pm. Tickets are available by phone at 215-785-0100, or online at www.brtstage.org. Ticket prices $39-$42, $15 for students age 22 and younger.
Welcome Home, Marian Anderson Cast and Creative Team: