October 5, 2016

"Marie and Rosetta" Revives the Spirit

Marie and Rosetta, which has been extended at the Atlantic Theater's Linda Gross Theater through Oct. 16, aims to be a crowd-pleaser—and it certainly is. Just about everyone left the theater with a big grin on their face the night I saw the show.

Its title characters are the midcentury gospel singer Marie Knight and her mentor Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a crossover star who was also such a big inspiration for Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley that she's considered the godmother of rock and roll.

The women teamed up for about five years after World War II, toured the country, particularly the segregated south, and produced a series of hit recordings. George Brant's two-hander purports to tell the story of that relationship.

I say purports because his plot is thin, and his story employs a lot of poetic license. Key moments in the women's lives such as the death of Marie's mother and children in a fire occur offstage. Their various marriages and divorces are mentioned only in passing. And Brant doesn't deal at all with the intriguing rumors that the singing partners may also have been lovers.

But none of that matters because what gives this show its heart, and yes, its soul, is the music. There are few things more glorious than a well-sung gospel song and this show has a bunch of them. It also has two superb performances from Rebecca Naomi Jones as Marie and Kecia Lewis as Rosetta. 

Jones is a little too cutesy in the early moments of the 90-minute play when a nervous Knight is supposed to be auditioning for Tharpe. But it doesn't take her long to settle down and cut loose. She's rocked in American Idiot, Murder Ballad and as Yitzak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and so Jones knows how to wail.

Lewis, on the other hand, is a powerhouse right from the get-go. She tosses off her lines with down-home panache and delivers her songs with such full-throated ecstasy that each one brings down the house. (Click here to read a Q&A with the two actresses).

Director Neil Pepe neatly handles a twist toward the end with finesse but for the most part he's had the good sense to stay out of the way, freeing the women to feed off one another's energy and allowing those of us in the audience to be uplifted by it. 

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