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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 1, 2017

Jordan Tyson and Jelani Alladin
Photo by Matthew Murphy

A couple of sparkling performances and the assuring presence of five-time Tony nominated Patricia Birch serving as director and choreographer are not enough to prevent the new musical Sweetee, opening tonight at the Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, from looking like a work in an early stage of development, or perhaps as a showcase for its mostly young cast members.

The show, with book, music, and lyrics by Gail Kriegel, is certainly heartfelt as it presents the story of a group of orphans, most of whom are black, living in the rural South in the 1930s under the protection of a social justice-oriented young white minister, Reverend Dan (Jeremiah James). With the support of his wife Hannah (Katherine Weber), a music teacher, it is Reverend Dan's dream to raise his charges out of their lives of poverty by turning them into a band of musicians and singers who will travel from church to church, earn some money, and make a name for themselves by performing religious music. In his own way, he also hopes to teach the white parishioners to set aside their deeply embedded racism.

Reverend Dan has noticed Sweetee (Jordan Tyson) as she sings for change around the town. Although she shies away from him at first, she winds up joining his group when her mother, Violet (Katy Blake), a prostitute and an alcoholic, dies suddenly. The troop faces many challenges, most of them tied to the bigotry of the white churchgoers. Reverend Dan loses his position after a run-in with one of them. It is the third church he's been removed from, and when he proposes traveling with his band to the more accepting city of New Orleans, his wife balks, and the pair splits up.

Things come to a head when the orphans meet up with Cat Jones (Jelani Alladin, the show's standout performer, who will be appearing in the forthcoming Broadway production of Frozen). Cat is a talented musician who convinces them they can do better than slapping their tambourines and singing "Amazing Grace." Cat provides them with instruments and offers to take them with him to perform the kind of New Orleans jazz music he excels at. While he and Sweetee have developed into a romantic couple, she decides to stick with Reverend Dan for the time being. Later, however, when he approaches her sexually, Sweetee leaves and sets off to New York, where she finds success selling a line of cosmetics. By the end, all rifts are starting to heal. Sweetee has forgiven Reverend Dan, he and Hannah are edging toward a reconciliation, and it looks as though Sweetee and Cat and her old friends will sort things out as well.

Certainly, there is potential for a compelling work within this outline. But sadly Sweetee is altogether sketchy as the story plays out through a series of short, poorly-connected scenes. While the program says it takes place between 1936 and 1942, you can only surmise a forward movement as we go from episode to episode. Except to the extent that Sweetee learns to become an independent young woman, there is very little character development, and musically, only a couple of numbers capture that elusive toe-tapping New Orleans style. Of the cast, Jelani Alladin is the standout, while Jordan Tyson, a student in the theater program at Marymount Manhattan College making her Off Broadway debut, shows she is likely to evolve into an excellent performer. Cedric Cannon also does a fine job in a small role of the owner of the black cemetery who befriends Sweetee. In the end, however, while the show may encompass big dreams for its characters and its creator, it will take a great deal of continued work to bring Sweetee to stage-worthy readiness.

Through June 18
Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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