Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Leading Ladies
Part of the credit for this long overdue, much-deserved honor might go to a playwright named George Brant, whose Marie and Rosetta had its world premiere at New York's Atlantic Theatre Company the year prior, finally bringing to the 21st-century conscience the music and story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Marie and Rosetta now receives a foot-tapping, spirit-arousing, and raise-the-roof production at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, returning to its birthplace of sorts where in 2015 the musical was first featured in the company's annual New Works Festival.
George Brant, happened to come across the story of Sister Rosetta in a song called "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," by Sam Phillips and recorded by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Though the singer started touring and performing throughout the South at the age of six in 1921, Brant begins this story in 1946. By then, Sister Rosetta was a sensation among African-American audiences, but her career at that point, as she describes to us, had been "in exile too long."
We meet the Sister in a coffin-filled, stain-glass-windowed funeral parlorthe only location she, as a famous, touring African-America singer, could spend the night in the Jim Crow South. Amidst the ghosts of those passed, we find her testing out a possible new partnership with twenty-three-year-old Marie Knight, having snatched Marie the previous night from a back-up quartet to her chief rival in the gospel circuit, the famed (and, unlike Rosetta, famous for life and beyond) Mahalia Jackson.
Directed with evident love of and respect for the music and its maker by Robert Kelley, Marie and Rosetta is a fictional accounting of this first evening the older star and the younger unknown spend together, each sizing up the other, musically and (especially on Marie's part) morally. Their differences in both accounts are immediately clear in the first two numbers each sings for the other in the richly decorated funeral parlor with its deep reds and purples and flocked wallpaper (impressively designed by Christopher Fitzer and spectacularly lit by Steven B. Mannshardt).
Sister Rosetta (long-time TheatreWorks veteran Michelle E. Jordan) sings a soulful but rollicking "This Train," using her deep, rich voice to sing, while her hips gently sway, that the train bound for glory "don't carry no gamblers, no whiskey drinkers, and no high flyers." In contrast, Marie (Marissa Rudd) lifts her angelic-sounding voice from soft, probing notes to those shuddering with heaven-worthy tremblers, asking a question seemingly directed at the Sister herself, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" Marie, a devout church singer and wife of a minister, is not shy in letting Sister Rosetta know that she is skeptical of associating with a woman who sings in the pulpit on Sunday mornings, barely getting there after rocking all night performing in a local nightclub. On the other hand, Sister Rosetta smugly remarks about Marie's "Were You There?" that "you're more high church than me ... and I don't like vibratos." As to Marie's pious views about those rhythmically swaying hips, the Sister is point-blank clear: "Honey, it's the hips or the highway."
The somewhat tentative, even shaky start of what will become a multi-year, successful partnership begins to pick up steam as the two continue sharing life stories and especially when they finally begin singing songs as a duet. Marie starts to see the possibilities for something beyond her dreams as their contrasting soprano and contralto voices and their differences in age, size and looks find common, synergistic grounds in soaring harmonies and back-and-forth musical conversations in "Didn't It Rain" and "Call My Name in Prayer." But the real selling point for Marie is when Sister Rosetta tells her in no uncertain terms, "You're not my back-up; you're my 'and.'"
For ninety minutes, the two actorsappearing in every respect to be as perfectly matched as a duo as surely the original pair wereentertain us with Rosetta Tharpe songs that range from the holy to the holy-roller to those that certainly would feel at home in a honky-tonk cellar. As she slowly opens up to her newfound "Mother Confessor" about her own tough life, Marie also opens up musically. By the time Sister Rosetta brings out first her acoustic and then her electric guitars, the two are truly thriving in their keyboard-pounding and guitar-picking duets, to the point that the once-reserved Marie cannot stay seated while playing the ivories, her own hips and entire body now jerking for the Lord and for the Sister as they wallop "Four or Five Times." (The actual piano and guitar mastery is with full gusto provided offstage by William Liberatore and Schuyler McFadden, respectively.)
The onstage story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, as related by George Brant, is a glorious concert of the singers' musical legacy but is sometimes not as clear in the biography portion. Much of the initial background information in this review, for example, comes from Katie Dal's highly informative program notes, not from the book of the musical itself. For first-timers to Rosetta Tharpeas I and my husband werethe musical journey itself, without having first read the program, often may feel like the spoken dialogue is just filler for the more interesting, fulfilling concert of heart-pounding, soul-touching songs. That said, the final number and its lead-up explanation as performed so miraculously beautiful by Marissa Rudd as Marie in fact does bring the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe into more perspective and does leave an audience ready to jump to their feet in overall appreciation for the talents these two actors have brought to the TheatreWorks stage.
Marie and Rosetta, through March 31, 2019, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available at www.theatreworks.org.