According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Sweet Mama Stringbean

African-American blues and jazz vocalist Ethel Waters reminisces about her faded career in Beth Turner's new musical. Although the production is riveting with well-rounded, fantastic performers, sharp direction and great music, it's very lean on Ethel's history. You won't get a comprehensive biography, but you'll still be pleased with this very satisfying display of talent. Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

The nickname Sweet Mama Stringbean, given to legendary entertainer Ethel Waters for her formerly svelte figure, plays a huge role in Beth Turner's new musical of the same name. Now in her early sixties and very overweight, Waters longs for the days of her youth when she was shaking and jiving and enjoying stage and screen stardom. While relaxing in her Harlem apartment in 1957, she transports us to the beginning of her career and subsequently, the beginning of her demons.

The product of the rape of her 13-year old mother, Waters' upbringing was overcast with a lack of love and acceptance from her family. She channels her heartbreak over men and discomfort with Christianity into a series of recordings such as "Am I Blue?", "Stormy Weather," and "Dinah." These, among other songs in her catalog, have survived the decades and remain celebrated even today. She acquired national fame through her singing, and a celebrated acting career followed suit. Cabin in the Sky and Pinky are but two critically-acclaimed films.

Sweet Mama Stringbean is heavy on the jazz and blues standards, steadily incorporating them in both acts. The production effectively uses video and title cards to date the unfolding events and insert the audience into each age. Even though the 20 songs on the list are sung beautifully by the cast, the story penciled in between is sorely lacking in details. And when the show does return to the premise, it often gets preachy instead of showy. For instance, the show touches on her return to the church, but doesn't say much about her alignment with Billy Graham.

Several numbers such as "Heatwave" are sung over the actual record, which takes us out of the recreation of these moments; these singers don't need any assistance to shine. Mother and daughter team Sandra Reaves-Phillips and Marishka Shanice Phillips play an older and younger Waters, respectively. Both women are powerful and enchanting in the roles, their kinship lending credibility to their interpretation of her crusty and simultaneously charming nature. The remainder of the ensemble (Cjay Hardy Philip, Gary E. Vincent and Darryl Jovan Williams) are all gifted and versatile, doing justice to Mickey Davidson's jubilant choreography and thriving under Elizabeth Van Dyke's mostly clean and crisp direction. The only questionable decision is the setting of some of the scenes on the staircases leading to the stage. The performers are frequently scattered behind and on the side of the house seating. Despite the fact that this is a practical way to use the space during harmonies to create a surround sound, the focus of the audience is split on too many levels.

The actors are all stars individually, but the performance of Cjay Hardy Philip, in a variety of supporting roles and solos, stands out. She demonstrates an uncanny vocal range and plays choice supporting roles such as Lena Horne and Josephine Baker that make her infinitely watchable. Gary E.Vincent's dance solo also merits special mention for its ability to delight. Darryl Jovan Williams dazzles on the piano and is hilarious in pseudo-drag.

All in all, Sweet Mama Stringbean is a well-orchestrated show. It may not be very meaty where Ethel Waters' life story is concerned, but you'll still get a great introduction. And while you're getting acquainted, you'll be having a fabulous time.

Through April 27th. Tickets: $20. Purchase by Phone:(212) 279-4200 Open 12-8 Daily. Buy at Box Office:Ticket Central Box Office 416 W 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036 Open Daily 12-8pm. Abrons Arts Center Recital Hall, 466 Grand Street @ Pitt Street, New York, NY 10002

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