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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Crowns is a Hip-Swaying Musical
With “Hattitude”

Also see Richard's reviews of The Shooting Stage and Beautiful Child

Crowns

TheatreWorks closes its 35th season with the Off Broadway musical hit with “hattitude,” Crowns. This exuberant gospel style musical is adapted from Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry’s book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, by playwright/actress Regina Taylor.

Every so often I view a show that reminds me of the theatre’s religious origins, like the Miracle Plays of the 12th and 13th century or even the musicals of the 20th century like Godspell, Children of Eden or Jesus Christ, Superstar. Crowns falls into this category, and the 95-minute musical feast is entertaining and extraordinary. You can't help but move your feet and hips while watching the seven amazingly talented performers giving out showstopping songs. You don’t have to be an African American, a female or even a hat lover to get into the swing of things; the infectious music gets into your bones.

Crowns is about the hats worn by churchgoers dressed in their Sunday best. These are emblematic crowns to put themselves in the presence of God. The sequences with music go from a morning church service to a funeral to a baptism. The music holding everything together is from spirituals, blues, rap and hip hop. There are great spiritual numbers like “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” beautifully sung by Michelle E. Jordan (winner of the SFBATCC award for Dreamgirls) as Velma and hilarious songs by Sheila Ellis as Mabel (original cast of Dreamgirls and other New York musicals) whose “Don’t Touch the Hat” brings down the house.

After its sensational appearances at the McCarter Theatre in New Jersey and the Second Stage in New York in 2002, Crowns has been presented in every major city in the United States. It continues to be presented in cities like Portland and Cincinnati later this year and likely will be playing in many more places. It brings an uplifting spirit to audience members wherever the productions plays.

Crowns centers around a street-tough Brooklyn teenager, Yolanda (Tiffany Thompson), who is shipped off to her grandmother's down south after her beloved brother has been murdered. She is to find her roots and learn that, for African Americans since the days of slavery and even back to Africa, hats have been the crowning glory of the women, especially on “church day on Sunday.” The connection of African American women and their hats started when Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians decreed that women must cover their heads to symbolize their obedience to God and the church hierarchy. The women have complied with unlimited passion with every kind of hat imaginable, from flamboyant feather hats to platter and lampshade hats.

Each woman has a down home story that involves her life and her hats. They give us an insight in their cultural history and we understand why these women collect church hats (one of the women has over 200) and consider them heirlooms to be passed down from generation to generation. These are women of substance and power when they put on the hats. They can assert themselves, as when Mabel sashays around giving out “hat queen rules” such as “Don’t let people touch the hat. Don’t let people knock the hat. Don’t let people hug too close.”

Each member of the cast, which includes six women and one man, is superb. Tiffany Thompson (Polk County New York and Berkeley) is top notch as the sweet, smart young girl who finally gets the full meaning of life. Sheila Ellis as the robust Mabel is charismatic. C. Kelly Wright (A Little Princess, Memphis, Bat Boy) gives a superlative performance with her wonderful vocal cords as Jeanette. Margarette Robinson (Go Down Garvey and Shakin the Mess Outta Misery at TheatreWorks) as the elegant Mother Shaw, the group's oldest and wisest, is wonderful in the role. She also has a terrific voice that booms out to the audience. Peggy Blow (Luna in Oo-Bla-Dee at TheatreWorks) as Wanda is wonderful when she tells how to flirt with a hat.

Clinton Derricks-Carroll (Polk County and Raisin) holds his own as the only male in the production. He plays many parts, from the awe-inspiring preacher, to a husband who wonders where his wife is going to find room for her 200 hats, to coming out in white tails and hat like someone from A Chorus Line. It is a shame he does not have more vocal numbers since he has a powerhouse voice.

In Crowns' musical duo, William Liberatore intones the arrangements and intersperses the action to an enthusiastic pitch on the piano and keyboard while Joe Hodge on drums/percussion gives the whole sound its excitement. The two sound like a complete small orchestra.

Andrea Bechert (scenic designr), Richard Battle (costume designer), and Ruth Garland-Dewsons (designer of the final hats) share equal honors in making the stage look like a wonderland of flamboyant hats. The gowns are gorgeous and the cast members pick and choose from 50 spectacular hats hanging from dangling pipe racks on the stage. There is a runway that is curved in a half-moon style with a small set at the bottom of the curve that occasionally changes.

Crowns runs through May 1 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

TheatreWorks opens their 2005-2006 season with the American premiere of Frank McGuinness’ Dolly West's Kitchen on June 15 through July 10 at the Mountain View Center.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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