Book, Music, and Lyrics By Gail Kriegel; Directed and Choreographed by Patricia Birch
Produced by Dream Big Theatrical LLC & Creative Place International
Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 6.18.17
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
by Angelina Joyce-DiBart on 6.2.17
Adante Carter, Hugh Cha, Jordan Tyson, Jelani Aladdin, Morgan Siobhan Green,
and Amir Royale in Sweetee. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
BOTTOM LINE: Gail Kriegel’s Sweetee brings us back to the Jim Crow-era South to tell a story of hardships and resilience with a cast of spirited and lovable musical talents.
Sweetee tells the story of a young biracial woman in the South struggling to find a life for herself during the Great Depression. A passionate singer, Sweetee (Jordan Tyson) joins a group of orphan musicians at the local church, led by a progressive white reverend and his wife. The troupe is forced to constantly travel, as Reverend Dan (Jeremiah James) is asked to leave parish after parish because of his liberal views. Sweetee’s transition into womanhood is shaped by the characters within the group, the people they meet, and the joyous and terrifying experiences that they share along the way.
The theater space is relatively intimate—a three-quarter thrust wooden stage rises just one step up from the audience. The wooden furniture is minimal; each piece is used in various ways to represent different settings. During the show, the audience is sometimes directly addressed, as if we're the congregation of each church. Characters enter and exit from the audience aisles, making the entire theater a playing space. The use of the space is well thought out and allows for a seamless and unencumbered telling of the story.
Yet the story itself is a bit scattered. While a linear through line exists, scenes that distract from and obfuscate the main plot are peppered throughout. Many of these scenes are meant to contain emotional climaxes, but without roots in the previous experiences, these big moments tend to fizzle. While the show attempts to incorporate an abundance of ideas and goes in many directions, it does not fully commit to any single choice. By the end I was left unsatisfied, unsure of what I should take from it.
Every orphan in the troupe is a musician, and each actor plays multiple instruments with ease, joy, and soul. The five-piece orchestra perfectly complements the group, and when they are all creating instrumental music together there are moments of pure fun and magic. However, the sung musical numbers, although beautifully performed, lack that same groundedness and soul. There is a disconnect between the historical cultural setting of the piece and the style and tonality found in the songs. Despite the major presence of the church, the feeling of spirituality is lost in the music.
Overall, I enjoyed the show. The actors are lively, engaging and charismatic, although if the orphans are meant to be children (as the adults refer to them) this wasn't fully realized in the performances. Nevertheless their connection and shared energy are tangible. But in the end I wanted a stronger emotional attachment to the characters and their lives.
(Sweetee plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through June 18, 2017. The running time is 2 hours with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 8; Wednesdays at 2:30 and 8; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 7:30; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $65 and are available by calling TicketCentral at 212-279-4200 or at SweeteeTheMusical.com.)
Sweetee is by Gail Kriegel. Directed by Patricia Birch. Choreography is by Patricia Birch. Set Design is by Tim Mackabee. Lighting Design is by Kirk Bookman. Sound Design is by Janie Bullard. Costume Design is by Tricia Barsamian. Stage Manager is Bernita Robinson.
The cast is Jelani Alladin, Katy Blake, Cedric Cannon, Adante Carter, Hugh Cha, Dave Droxler, Morgan Siobhan Green, Jeremiah James, Amir Royale, Jordan Tyson, and Katherine Weber.