Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Mahalia: A Gospel Musical
The last time MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia, presented Mahalia: A Gospel Musical, in 2004, Bernardine Mitchell received the Helen Hayes Award as outstanding lead actress in a resident musical for her performance. She's just as dynamic now playing the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, but at two and a half hours, the show is too much of a good thing, despite the sleek direction of Thomas W. Jones II.
Playwright Tom Stolz, working with traditional gospel songs, follows the outlines of the performer's biography in his script. Mitchell, supported by William F. Hubbard (also from the 2004 production) and S. Renee Clark, portrays Jackson from her early years in New Orleans, where her strict Aunt Duke steered her away from the "sinful" blues of Bessie Smith and toward the joy of church music, through her growing fame as a singer in Chicago; her partnership with composer Thomas A. Dorsey, "the father of gospel music"; her groundbreaking 1950 Carnegie Hall concert; her support of the civil rights movement, including a performance at the 1963 March on Washington when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech; and her ultimate triumph in Europe and visit to the Holy Land. (Stolz tactfully omits some things, such as Jackson's two marriages and divorces.)
Mitchell is a powerful singer and performer who ably embodies the iconic Mahalia, beginning as a giddy teenager and progressing to wisdom and comfort in her destiny, which she describes as "spreading good news in bad times."
Hubbard plays a wide spectrum of roles, from the young Mahalia's fun-loving cousin to the flamboyant Dorsey, whom Mahalia calls "the Lord's first traveling salesman," and he gives an impassioned reading of some of King's most famous words. Clark shifts ably from tough Aunt Duke to Mildred Falls, Mahalia's effusive longtime accompanist. Clark is also the music director, and she and Hubbard are comfortable at the piano and the Hammond organ.