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A CurtainUp Review
Gail Kriegel's music, lyrics and book presents a rag-tail group of multiracial, illiterate, orphans living in Claytonville, SC under the wing of Reverend Dan, a progressive white minister (Jeremiah James). Reverend Dan and his wife, Hannah (Katherine Weber) feed and house the kids and teach them simple instruments. The plan is to turn them into accomplished musicians so that they can sing hymns and gospel at various churches and raise enough money to support themselves. It turns out to be a self-sacrificing life that causes Hannah to leave her husband and his struggling orphans.
The scenes are sketchy with many blank spaces but the show moves swiftly under the sure hand of director-choreographer, five/time Tony Award nominee Patricia Birch. She has shrewdly staged Sweetee on every spare inch of the Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Signature Center. An excellent quintet led by Joshua Zecher-Ross is tucked into one corner of the theater.
Jordan Tyson (in promising off-Broadway debut) plays the titular character as a savvy young woman with self-confidence and a fighting spirit. She is a biracial teenager living with her white mother (Violet (Katy Black), who's a drug and alcoholic addict and prostitute. Sweetee loves her mother deeply but does not want that life for herself. After she meets Reverend Dan and his entourage singing on the street and they invite her to join them, she hesitates just briefly before accepting. Her singing and youthful energy enlivens the spirituality of the gospel and hymn songs of the Reverend's band
Upon moving to New Orleans the group runs into charismatic Cat Jones (Jelani Alladin, soon to appear on Broadway in Frozen). Cat brings vitality to the plot, the band, and his admiring youngsters. His songs, "Gotta Be Music" and "Come Ride With Me," are uplifted by the new instruments he gives the kids and ring with spirit and the rhythm of swing and jazz. (How Cat got all these instruments to generously dole out is one of the plot's many unaddressed questions.)
Cat's dream is New York City. He quickly recognizes the promise in these youngsters and has an eye for Sweetee. He urges them all to join him with a jazzier kind of band that could succeed in New York. Although Sweetee loves Cat she opts to stay with Reverend Dan and keep on touring churches. However, she fails to recognize Reverend Dan's loneliness and his growing attraction for her until the plot turns in an uncomfortable direction. And so. . .she leaves and strikes out on her own. How she manages to quickly build a cosmetic business of her own is another unanswered problem.
The singing orphans are all musically talented. Morgan Siobhan Green's Hedy has a lusty voice that's especially attuned to the gospel sound as shown with "What Good, What Good." Jeremiah James's Reverend Dan brings a confident baritone inspires several reprises of "Dream Big." As his wife, Hannah, Katherine Weber in her off-Broadway debut shines with a touching "Maybe Start Again." Cedric Cannon and Dave Droxler add support, Canon — as Mr. Robinson, owner of the black cemetery and Droxler in several small roles.
Besides the questionable plot and negligible character development, the music makes only minimal connections to the Irish roots in hymnal and country music, the feel of bluegrass, plantation gospel or blues. Many songs are just short snippets and at least four are from the hymn/folk songbook (John Newton and William Cowper's "Amazing Grace" and Harry Dixon Loews and Avis Christiansen's "This Little Light of Mine." "Joyful, Joyful" by Henry van Dyke and "If Your Heart Keeps Right" is by Lizzie DeArmond and Bentley D. Ackley).
Fittingly, the spare plot plays out on a simple set by Tim Mackabee. Crates and cartons are carried and arranged by cast members as benches, graves and seats. A Confederate flag is one defining prop and the background is a large segregationist sign.
Birch's direction and choreography keeps the play in action as the little band travels through the country. Costumes by Tricia Barsamian are stand-outs for the ebullient finale but the 1930's designs for Hannah and the church women lose authority without seams in their stockings.
With performers like Jelani Alladin and Jordon Tyson Sweetee has heart but it needs CPR in plot and music to make this show a credible theatrical event.
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Sweetee, book music and lyrics by Gail Kriegel
Director/Choreographer: Patricia Birch
Music Director: Doug Katsaros
Associate Director: Greg Uliasz
Cast:Jeremiah James (Reverend Dan), Jordan Tyson (Sweetee), Morgan Siobhan Green (Hedy), Adante Carter (Thomas), Hugh Cha ( Abraham), Amir Royale (Murphy). Hugh Cha (Abraham), Amir Royale (Murphy).
Set Design: Timothy Mackabee
Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian
Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman
Sound Design: Janie Bullard
Production Stage Manager: Bernita Robinso
Musicians: conductor Joshua Zecher-Ross, associate conductor Doug Katsaros, John Carlos Feliciano on bass, Daniel Glaude on clarinet and Paul Tafoya on trumpet
Running Time: Two hours. One intermission
Dream Big Theatrical LLC at Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42 St
Performances: Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri. at 8:00 pm. Wed. at 2:30 pm, Sat. at 2:30 pm. & 7:30 pm., Sun. at 3:00 pm.
Previews: 5/23/17. Opens: 06/01/17. Closes: 06/18/17
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 06/04/17
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