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Hallelujah, Baby!

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 29, 2018

Jarran Muse, Vivian Reed, and Stephanie Umoh
Photo by Ben Strothmann

Time has not been kind to Hallelujah, Baby!, the all-too-genteel 1967 musical that set out to chronicle the struggle for African American civil rights in the U. S. over the course of the twentieth century. The limp satire (book by Arthur Laurents) and charming score (music by Jule Styne, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) were way too squooshy for that purpose, as the York Theatre Company's stripped-down Musicals In Mufti production allows us to see most clearly.

With Musicals In Mufti, you get to examine what lies beneath the accouterments of splashy sets, costumes, choreography, and orchestrations. For better or for worse, this is the strength of these bare bones presentations by the York, which has done more than 100 short-run, small-scale versions of musicals that are unlikely to see a Broadway stage ever again. Hallelujah, Baby! is the first of three in a series focused on seldom-seen Jule Styne works (the others are Bar Mitzvah Boy and Subways Are For Sleeping).

The songs in this production of Hallelujah, Baby! are accompanied by just two musicians, David Hancock Turner on piano and Richie Goods on bass (both excellent), while Justin West's projection design keeps us aware of the passing of the decades through the century, from the early 1900s on. That's necessary, because the premise of the show is that the characters never age, at least not on the outside; "Inside? That's a horse of a different," explains Georgina, the show's central character. The dropping of the unspoken word "color" is indicative of the level of satire we can expect.

The plot itself follows the career of the eternally 25-year-old Georgina (Stephanie Umoh) from maid to singing star, along with the ongoing saga of her Momma (Vivian Reed) and the two men in Georgina's life, Clem (Jarran Muse), who is black, and Harvey (Tally Sessions), who is white. More importantly, though not explored nearly enough, it is about the extent to which Georgina can continue to wear blinders against a sea of racial prejudice and discrimination in her determination to fulfill her personal dream. This dream starts modestly enough with Georgina's "wish song." As she explains to her mother, "I want a floor that belongs to me/I want a chair that belong to me." These would seem to be modest ambitions, but Momma, who was born into slavery, is not able to envision a life beyond one of servitude, either for herself or for her daughter.

Unfortunately, what little bite there is in Act I does not move much beyond a lightweight mockery of servitude (a bell tinkles offstage and Momma immediately slips into her intentionally cringing and shuffling mode: "Yes, ma'am, I'se a-comin'") or the near impossibility of Georgina breaking into any level of show business, even as a "Congo Cutie" in a nightclub floor show. The songs follow the same pattern, with titles like "Feet Do Your Stuff" and "Smile, Smile" ("Just keep shufflin' along/Smile, smile!"). It is not until Act II, when Georgina has become successful, that she begins to grasp the significance of the overall treatment of African Americans and the necessity of her playing a role in the struggle. She may have reached a point where the law has opened the door to a New York apartment along the Hudson River, but she can no longer ignore the fact that she is likely to be isolated and treated with barely disguised contempt by her white neighbors. It is a revelatory moment, but one that we have awaited for far too long.

None of this is a reflection on the performances at the York. The cast members, especially Ms. Umoh, Ms. Reed, and Mr. Sessions, do well in bringing their rather metaphoric roles to life under Gerry McIntyre's direction, even as they work from scripts-in-hand. But the minimalism requires us to focus on the material itself. To complicate matters for purists in the audience, this version of Hallelujah, Baby! is not based on the original 1967 script, but on a 2004 revision by the playwright himself. Arthur Laurents publicly acknowledged his belief that the earlier version was too soft in its portrayal of the struggle for equality. Yet, whatever changes he made (along with additional lyrics that were penned by Amanda Green), they have not succeeded in making a case for a show that first appeared at the height of the modern civil rights movement and that closed its Broadway run just months before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

To be fair, the original production garnered five Tony Awards, including ones for best musical and best score, and another for the career-catapulting performance by Leslie Uggams as Georgina. If, perchance, you should listen to the songs by themselves or watch excerpts on YouTube, you will find that the team of Styne and Comden & Green have produced enough high-quality numbers that make the visit to the York well worthwhile to their legions of fans.

But there is no getting around the timid approach to the subject matter. It was bad enough in the 1960s (or even in 2004), but now it all just seems terribly condescending, the struggles of a 25-year-old black woman as told through the eyes of three middle-aged white men and one middle-aged white woman. For a more authentic-voiced, sharply satirical version of a similar story, I recommend seeking out a production of Lynn Nottage's 2011 play, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. That, at least, has some real sting to it, along with the courage of its convictions.

Hallelujah, Baby!
Through February 4
York Theatre at St. Peter's Church, 619 Lexington Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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