By George Brant; Directed by Neil Pepe
Off Broadway, Play with Music
Runs through 10.2.16
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 9.13.16
Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones in Marie and Rosetta. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.
BOTTOM LINE: See it for the performances.
We’re in the coffin showroom of a funeral parlor in 1946. It seems rehearsal space is at a premium, and this is where the piano is kept. Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones) is preparing Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis) for what must be a performance. In fabulous bravado, Sister Rosetta declares that she’s never looked prettier and her hair has never been closer to God. And we’re off. What follows is a playful, wonderful ballet of the courtship of two gospel singers as they begin to know one another’s styles—Knight is more conservative and prefers the lyric “sing,” while Sister Rosetta prefers more “swing” and a hell of a lot more soul. It’s the mark of a changing time that’s ushered in by the later appearance of an electric guitar. Naturally the case has to be closed on the acoustic guitar in order to keep it pure from these new sounds.
Sister Rosetta is “not looking for backup” but rather “an and.” She needs a partner on the marquee to carry her act forward with a new legacy. Director Neil Pepe guides us through this wonderful relationship that’s nothing but playful foils, soul, and tender magic. Riccardo Hernández’s set makes the most of the Atlantic’s existing church interior to delicately frame the story, and Dede M. Ayite’s costumes are wonderfully, meticulously styled. (I should mention, in case you need to Google it like I did, that this is the beginning of a true story about a prolific pair of gospel singers in the 1940s. Seriously, go look at YouTube and fill your afternoon with some serious soul. You’re welcome.)
George Brant’s recent playwriting success came with Grounded at the Public, starring Anne Hathaway; he's now turning this play (really a solo show) into a film. Marie and Rosetta isn’t entirely a play in the conventional sense, but rather an excuse to see and hear Jones and Lewis rock out. You could just listen to Lewis’ bold belt and Jones’ crisp bell tones all evening. Brant’s script seems secondary—it’s not entirely interesting, though certainly well-made. And Brant has a dramatic turn in store for us near the end that wants to be more harrowing than it is. Because we’ve developed a rapport with this play—a play that is more like a concert—the reveal doesn’t feel quite right.
It should be noted that my companion sobbed through the curtain call, so clearly Brant's script works for some. And no matter how effective you find the text, Marie and Rosetta is must-see theatre because everyone must experience the bravura powerhouse that is Kecia Lewis. And as the sometimes foil of Lewis, Rebecca Naomi Jones radiates charm that is nothing but pleasure. “God don’t want the devil to have all the good music,” declares Sister Rosetta. You can feel ok that this sinful pleasure is totally God approved.
(Marie and Rosetta plays at the Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, through October 2, 2016. Performances are Tuesdays at 7, Wednesdays through Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 2. There will be a show Sunday, September 18 at 7, and a show on Wednesday, September 21 at 2. Tickets are $65-$75 and are available at atlantictheater.org or by calling 866-811-4111.)
Marie and Rosetta is by George Brant. Directed by Neil Pepe. Set Design is by Riccardo Hernández. Costume Design is by Dede M. Ayite. Lighting Design is by Christopher Akerlind. Sound is by SCK Sound Design. Music direction, arrangements and orchestrations are by Jason Michael Webb. The musicians are Felicia Collins and Deah Harriott. Production Stage Manager is Michael Domue.
The cast is Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kecia Lewis.