'Shout Sister Shout!': Theater Review

Shout Sister Shout! at Pasadena Playhouse -Production still 1- Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Jim Cox Photography
Not even a flawed narrative can undo the magic of a superlative cast headed by Tracy Nicole Chapman.

Gospel and rock 'n' roll pioneer Rosetta Tharpe gets her due in a lively new musical from the creator of 'A Night With Janis Joplin.'

In 2008, the State of Pennsylvania declared Jan. 11 Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day and held a concert to raise funds for a marker for her grave. The fact that the final resting place of this gospel and rock 'n' roll pioneer had been neglected may have caused a backlash, spawning biographies and documentaries, as well as a 2014 off-Broadway play, Marie and Rosetta. From director Randy Johnson (A Night With Janis Joplin), Shout Sister Shout! offers spirit-raising gospel, proto-rock and rhythm and blues courtesy of a rousing cast. Tracy Nicole Chapman, whose Broadway credits include The Lion King and Caroline, or Change, headlines an irrepressible evening of song, her acrobatic vocalizations fusing bravura with tenderness.

Tharpe had a gift that was obvious from the age of 4 when she picked up her first guitar, though that’s not where the new show begins. Instead it starts at the end, after she dies of a stroke in 1973. Before passing through the pearly gates, she’s sent back by her Lord to share her gifts with struggling young rocker Isaiah (Logan Charles). Together, they revisit some of the most transformative moments of her life. If that sounds a bit schematic, it is. Playwright Cheryl L. West hinders the production with an unneeded structural framework that is persistently problematic, though thankfully outweighed by the show’s finer elements.

As a girl, Tharpe sang at church, zealously attended by her mother, played by Yvette Cason, who appeared as Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin in the original Pasadena Playhouse production of A Night With Janis Joplin. Here she demonstrates her range in a pair of roles including Mahalia Jackson, singing "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." When Tharpe laments the fact that men are drawn to her guitar but not her face, her mother consoles her by responding, “When the time comes, God’s gonna bring you a decent man.” Cue the tall and captivating Reverend Thorpe (Michael A. Shepperd), who singles out Tharpe for her talent. Their wedding duet, “How About You,” is a charmer, though suspicions arise when she offers him her lips and he kisses her cheek.

The marriage is short-lived when, after the Reverend strikes her, she and her mother leave for New York to play the Cotton Club. Tharpe was the first to perform gospel music in secular settings, facilitating its crossover into the mainstream, but catching the devil from the faithful who felt the Lord’s music had no place in nightclubs. Opportunity follows and soon she has a contract with Decca playing songs like the unholy “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” with Lucky Millinder’s band. Success notwithstanding, the siren song of the church calls her back, even if it means joining a young Little Richard (Thomas Hobson), singing “Walk All Over God’s Heaven."

It’s easy to hear the stirrings of rock 'n' roll in Tharpe’s music, including “You Gotta Move,” which was later recorded by The Rolling Stones. But a short trip to YouTube suggests it was less her singing than her guitar that inspired early rockers. Chapman clearly has the acting and vocal chops to play Tharpe, but seems barely acquainted with the instrument. It’s a tall order to meet all of the role’s demands, but she checks two of the boxes and, purists be damned, has enough musical talent to carry the play.

Situated on risers right and left of upstage center, musical director Rahn Coleman’s quintet artfully fills the narrow niche between down-and-dirty rock and soulful gospel. Likewise the ensemble of Boise Holmes, Armando Yearwood Jr. and Thomas Hobson, who amplify bigger numbers with a balance of dance and smooth harmonies.

After Tharpe convinces Marie Knight (Angela Teek Hitchman) to leave Mahalia Jackson and tour with her, the pair performs a playful duet, “That’s All," "We’ve got to have more love and understanding everyday of our life, and that’s all,” they sing, perhaps about the affection the two have found for each other in the first relationship that actually seems to please Tharpe.

Making his theatrical debut as Isaiah, Charles offers an affable presence and a fine singing voice, but the role is a distraction throughout an otherwise buoyant production. Most of the time he’s an interloper lurking on the perimeter, occasionally working out his mommy issues as he tries to compose a song under Tharpe’s guidance. As the production rocks to its conclusion, he takes center stage in a whopper of a misfire, the anti-climactic “When I Look Through You,” a crummy pop tune written by Melissa Manchester. The show’s narrative is chronologically laid out and doesn’t require the structural elements Isaiah’s story provides. A simple rewrite would correct the problem without compromising the material’s strengths.

In her time, Tharpe was lauded for guitar work equal to that of any man. In fact, she could outplay most of them. It’s no surprise she was a victim of sexism and racism, and her final resting place nearly forgotten. While Shout Sister Shout! serves as a necessary theatrical testament to an American treasure, it's also a rollicking celebration of her joyous spirit.

Venue: The Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena
Cast: Tracy Nicole Chapman, Logan Charles, Yvette Cason, Michael A. Shepperd, Angela Teek Hitchman, Thomas Hobson, Boise Holmes, Armando Yearwood Jr.
Director: Randy Johnson
Book: Cheryl L. West
Set designer: Steven C. Kemp
Costume designer: Dana Rebecca Woods
Lighting designer: Jared A. Sayeg
Sound designer: Jon Gottlieb
Musical direction & arrangements: Rahn Coleman
Choreographer: Keith Young
Presented by The Pasadena Playhouse, BGT Group Productions