Crowns -- Theater Review

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Regina Taylor's adaptation of the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry is a feel-good "gospel musical" about a sort of reverse intervention into a young woman's life by a matriarchal bevy of "hat queens" in rural South Carolina, led by a magnificently regal performance by Paula Kelly rich in authentic spirituality.

Taylor's fantasy of life and love, which hearkens to an idealized, iconic past, definitely will shore up the courage and resolve of many audience members, female and male, during these difficult days.

Yolanda (an adorable Angela Wildflower-Polk) is a Brooklyn teen whose brother was murdered and whose mother has sent her to stay with her grandmother (Kelly). Five other women (family members and friends) and one lone man (Clinton Derricks-Carroll in a tour de force ranging from loud comedy to exquisite pantomime dancing), spend two memorable hours testifying to the virtues of family values in an attempt to open the eyes of the angry, frightened and resentful newcomer.

The metaphor for the women's lives, aspirations and satisfactions are the hats they wear to church on Sunday. Their choice of millinery apparel and the "hattitude" with which they wear them is the focus for a series of loosely intertwined character studies and fantasies.

In addition to Kelly, each of the women deliver riveting interpretations of their characters, and each is a brilliant gem of a performance. Sharon Catherine Blanks is bold and brassy; Vanessa Bell Calloway is worldly, funny and erotic; and Ann Weldon is loud, funny and comforting. Complementing these broader takes is a restrained reading by Suzzanne Douglas that reveals the beauty of the human spirit. And, of course, they all know how to wear a hat.

The Pasadena Playhouse-Ebony Repertory Theatre co-production features striking minimalist staging dominated by 47 hats set on vertical columns. The costumes range from simple, elegant and sophisticated to wild, and the hats are worth the price of admission. Director Israel Hicks has blended the singing, dancing, Eric Scott Reed's comforting musical arrangements and a great three-man pit band into a seamless, irresistible flow of song, story and chatter.

Venue: Pasadena Playhouse (Through Aug. 16)
Cast: Sharon Catherine Blanks, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Suzzanne Douglas, Paula Kelly, Angela-Wildflower Polk, Ann Weldon
Playwright: Regina Taylor
Director: Israel Hicks
Choreographer: Keith Young
Musical director: Eric Scott Reed
Musical arrangers: Linda Twine, David Pleasant
Scenic designer: Edward E. Haynes Jr.
Costume designer: Dana Rebecca Woods
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
Casting: Michael Donovan