Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Yvette Cason

“Shout, Sister, Shout”: Awkward, Though Heartfelt Tribute in Pasadena

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Yvette Cason (Mahalia Jackson) and Tracy Nicole Chapman (Sister Rosetta Tharpe) in Shout Sister Shout! at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

If you love classic rock and roll, and have never heard of Sister Rosetta Sharpe, shame on you. Raised in gospel, this woman was a superstar in the 30s and 40s, playing the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall, and inventing a stage presence and guitar style which inspired the likes of Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Elvis. She wrote a lot of her own songs, mixing gospel with a beat considered the precursor of rock.

“Shout, Sister, Shout,” which has just ended its premiere run at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, is supposed to tell her story. It does so by the creaky device of having Sister Rosetta stopped at the pearly gates, told to go save a sad-faced white boy from himself before she can go into Heaven. So, she goes down and recounts snippets of her story to him, sings a lot, and challenges the young man to reach into his own music. What the show really is is a collection of her best numbers, many of them her own, and occasional performances by those she encountered along the way, from church groups to Mahalia Jackson. The snips of life story are then thrown in for effect.

Sadly, the script is stodgy, and so episodic one rarely gets a chance to connect either with Sharpe or with those who interacted with her on the way – many of whom are given one or maybe two lines to indicate they ever existed. The wan young man is more a distraction than anything else, and his sudden heart-wrenching solo at the end, penned for this show by Melissa Manchester, does nothing to enhance Sharpe’s actual story, which should be the focus of the piece.

Tracy Nicole Chapman does bring spunk and zing to Sharpe herself, but she is called upon to play a series of guitars almost all the time, and – if the rather overblown (as in so loud you can’t hear the lyrics) amplification is telling the truth, she rarely actually plays them. This is a problem when one is representing a person especially known for her guitar stylings. If she does, it is simple strumming, rather than the blues guitar Sharpe was known for.

On the other hand, there are moments of great light from Yvette Cason, who manages to play Sharpe’s evangelist mother with a powerful voice and personality, then switch to the stylings of Mahalia Jackson without skipping a beat. Thomas Hobson, Boise Holmes and Armando Yearwood, Jr. form a powerful church-rocking trio, while Michael A. Shepperd (most memorable as the preacher briefly Sharpe’s first husband), and Angela Teek Hitchman (as the partner Sharpe toured with in her happiest period) round out the ensemble. Young Logan Charles, as the lost kid Sharpe is supposed to save, does a reasonable job, though his part is more spur to the next story than anything particularly rounded.

Still, they cannot overcome Cheryl L. West’s hopelessly episodic book, which jumps from image to image with just enough information to spur the next song. The music is good and the stage band makes it better, except that the amps are turned up so high much of the song lyrics – which, in several cases, are expected to move the story along – are completely unintelligible: okay if you already know them, but death to anyone who has come to the show to be introduced to Sharpe for the first time.

There is so much promise of what “Shout, Sister, Shout” could have been that the results proved deeply disappointing. Even the most solid performances seemed to be sitting on a very, very fragile framework. No argument that Sister Rosetta Sharpe was a powerful and fascinating element in the development of American music. One just wishes this show did her justice.

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Another Little Piece of Joplin: Reworked “Night” returns to the Playhouse

Tony-nominee Mary Bridget Davies & Company. [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Tony-nominee Mary Bridget Davies & Company. [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Update: The Pasadena Playhouse has extended the run of this show until August 23.

Just a little over two years ago, a tribute to the woman dubbed The Queen of Rock first appeared at the Pasadena Playhouse. More than just the usual tribute show, what was then called “One Night with Janis Joplin” used an evening of song and conversation with Mary Bridget Davies’ Joplin to explore the roots of her music, her strong ties to traditional blues, and the passion which brought her to toss aside a middle class lifestyle in favor of the short but important life she would have in rock and roll. The show was a solid hit.

Now, after some revision and a trip to Broadway, where Davies was nominated for a Tony, what is now called “A Night with Janis Joplin” has returned to the Playhouse. In some ways the changes have added depth and balance to the show’s storyline and energy. In some others, the focus on Joplin herself has blunted a bit. Still, the end result is one enjoyable trip back to the late 60s, and the melding of musical forms which was so central to that entire period.

Randy Johnson, who wrote this homage and also directs, was specifically concerned with not just creating a classic “tribute band” kind of concert, and that still remains. What has expanded is the look at those blues – and the great performers who sang them – which so inspired Joplin to become a singer herself. In the show’s biggest change, rather than having one person try to be all of those great talents, separate members of the chorus of “Joplinaires” have moments in the sun as Etta James (Jenelle Lyn Randall), Bessie Smith and Odetta (Sylvia MacCalla), a symbolic “blues singer” representing all those lesser known voices from the past (Sharon Catherine Brown), and most especially Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Yvette Cason). Plus, all four gather together to be the girl-group Joplin admired, the Chantels.

With all these different and highly talented voices expressing the traditionally African-American roots which shaped Joplin’s own style (though she admits in the script that she only sounds like “a white chick singing the blues”), the structure of the production proves more balanced. Each singer had (and in this show has) her own style and structure, and it becomes a treat to see how each of these influenced specific aspects of both Joplin’s sound and her choice of repertoire.

Of course, central to the whole thing is Davies’ Janis. She looks the part, as she always has, and gives her all to the raspy joy of Joplin’s singing. In the course of the last few years that has morphed a bit. She’s no longer an imitator, with exactly the same sounds as one could find on a recording. Rather, the whole focus on matching Joplin to her influences has let a bit more creativity sneak in. Sometimes lyrics once intelligible get lost in the soaring shouts which express the energy of the moment – a shift which can be exciting or annoying. Sometimes the tune takes second place to spoken observations. Still the magnetism is there, and the feel of Joplin’s music. And there is all that fearsome energy, especially when the first act closer – a duet between Joplin’s Queen of Rock and Aretha’s Queen of Soul – rocks the house in memorable ways.

What “A Night with Janis Joplin” now offers, in ways which were more hinted at the first time through, is a demonstration of musical forces which surrounded her and moved her toward stardom. This is not a biography, except a musical one, and doesn’t touch on the things we all know came with that stardom: the lifestyle and drugs which would lead to her death at the height of both her popularity and her own personal satisfaction with her music. Once again, as with the first version, one cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Janis Joplin had had a chance to mature as an artist past age 27. But then, one could ask that of many of the most terrific musical talents of that era.

What: A Night with Janis Joplin When: Through August 16, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $45 – $150 Info: 626-356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

“Under My Skin”: The Pasadena Playhouse Plays the Gender Game for Laughs

Matt Walton and Erin Cardillo spark comedy in the gender-shifting “Under My Skin” at the Pasadena Playhouse (photo by Jim Cox)

It makes great fodder for literature of one kind and another. Questions of understanding gender differences – what it is to be the gender one is not – have sparked books like “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” and all sorts of cross-dressing, gender-bending plot devices intended to explore the concept. Now playwrights Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser attack the topic in an often outrageous and rather salacious comedy, “Under My Skin” at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Refreshing and entertaining as the play makes it, the general plot device of the thing is hardly new. An accident which was not supposed to happen leads an angel to earth to reanimate the two people affected: the single, pompous top executive of a huge health insurance firm, and the Jewish “sandwich generation” single mother temping at his company. Through a mixup, each ends up in the other’s body, and must learn to cope both with differing financial circumstances, and the differing physicalities of being another gender.

In the hands of Sternin and Fraser, the results are fall-out-of-your chair funny, in some cases simply because they are so honest in addressing the base mechanics of gender difference and sexual response.

To keep the thing funny, it must be played straight – a task this delightful ensemble makes look deceptively easy. Matt Walton makes Harrison, the millionaire, a man constantly wresting with surprise as he must adjust from self-absorption to both the intricacies and indignities of the female body and basic demands of bread-winning. Erin Cardillo, as Melody, the struggling mom handed wealth and maleness, shows a kind of fascinated curiosity, particularly when coping with the responses this body must wrestle with, and the superfluous elements of privilege.

The cast supporting these two prove as filled with energy and rich character as the two leads. The great Hal Linden plays Melody’s forgetful grandfather with a self-deprecating air which keeps even the idea of aging lighthearted. Megan Sikora gives Melody’s big-hearted, low rent best buddy a sense of delight with life which establishes the gleeful undertone of the piece. Danielle Soibelman plays the truth of the snippy and resentful modern teenaged girl.

Perhaps best of all are Yvette Cason, Tim Bagley and Monette Magrath. The first plays the angel who sets the entire story in motion with a wit, practicality and humor which make her brief appearances among the play’s most memorable moments. The latter two play everyone else in the plot, from incidental characters to newscasters to doctors to (in Magrath’s case) Harrison’s somewhat aloof fiance. Their chameleon abilities keep things defined, and very lively.

Another star has to be John Iacovelli’s set – a riff on Mondrian-esque art which seems to define the urban world in which this takes place.

The vision of director Marcia Milgrom Dodge keeps this piece from becoming too formulaic or too cliche. The play is a risque one for the standard Playhouse audience, but under Dodge’s pacing, and focus on the clear-headed honesty of character and situation, the comedy wins over the shock value. Still, one must say that those who will be offended by this play, will be offended by this play. Don’t come if mention of the mechanics of sex and attraction bother you.

For everyone else, come have a good time. The play does have its preachy political side, arguing throughout for the humanizing of the 1%, and against the evils of the managed health care system. Yet, couched as it all is in light comic terms, the end result is the laughter of recognition rather than the bitterer chuckle of irony or sarcasm. In the end, a strong dose of humor and, just perhaps, a little insight into the gender you are not become the take-aways.

What: “Under My Skin” When: Through October 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $32 – $62, with Premium Seating available for $100. Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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