Until late in Marie and Rosetta, George Brant's play feels like an excuse to get the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater rocketing until liftoff and far beyond.
For any thinking-feeling audiences, including this happy member, that's enough of an excuse to listen to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis) and Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones) reprise songs from their beloved repertoire--rhythm-and-blues-tinged gospel favorites like "Up Above My Head," "This Train," "I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer," the bawdy "Four or Five Times" and "Didn't It Rain?"
Little time passes between one reprise and the next from either or both of the gospel sisters. The joy with which they deliver the songs--even when occasionally chanting about despair--is contagious. It's as if Zika mosquitos carrying infectious jubilation have swarmed into the auditorium, and there's no fending them off and absolutely no desire to do so.
Marie and Rosetta begin dealing with each other on an unquestionably evocative Riccardo Hernández set busy with coffins, at least one of them open. Along with a few props, including a guitar case, the only other notable furnishing is a spinet that promises plenty.
As Christopher Akerlind's lights rise, Rosetta in a glittering white gown has her eyes closed, while Marie in peach frock applies makeup to her relaxes face. (Dede M. Ayite is the costumer.) The tableau is suggestive, but before patrons have time to give it much thought, Marie finishes her daubing and Rosetta rises to look at herself in a mirror and enthusiastically approve the handiwork.
Marie's unexpected maquillage skill only confirms Rosetta in her choice: She's picked Marie out of a quartet that appeared with her the previous evening. She's planning to go from soloing to duetting, and she's decided that Marie has the potential to be the perfect performing companion.
There is a small problem, as Rosetta sees it. She believes that her audiences want the swing she instills in her singing. So far she spots none of that in the well-brought-up, staid Marie. She does, however, believe that if she can coax Marie to swivel her hips--and the rest of her--she knows the piano-playing Marie has the wherewithal.
That's Rosetta's immediate mission. Launching into it, she has Marie up to raise-the-roof level in what, for the intermissionless 90-minute songfest, feels like no time at all. That includes Rosetta's getting Marie over her resistance to performing rousing goin'-to-church material other than in sanctuaries and other proper venues. The speed with which she succeeds at the task is a definite credulity stretch.
Brant, keeping the musical breaks coming, is so generous with the fast-motion in other ways that Rosetta not only gets the inspiration for her "Up Above My Head" in a trice, but she and Marie are also rendering a harmonized final version faster than Ann Southern and Robert Young write the Oscar Hammerstein II-Jerome Kern "Lady Be Good" in the 1941 movie of the same title.
The two scorch-the-air women do get around to other matters as well. On this supposed 1946 night in sweltering Mississippi, Rosetta explains that when in the South, she makes herself scarce and hence the bivouacking in a funeral parlor. They get around to their individual upbringings. They talk about the men in their lives. More precisely, they talk about the men they want to get out of their lives. They agree they'll both divorce their current no-good spouses asap. They indulge some amusing banter about life on the road. Hoping against hope for acceptable good chow, Rosetta tells Marie they'll usually have to settle for "gospel chicken," or, as more commonly known, bologna.
Brant also maintains a funny running gag about Mahalia Jackson, whom Sister Rosetta considers an uptight competitor and repeatedly calls "Saint Mahalia." She even does a Jackson impersonation that hits the mark. (Full disclosure: I never saw Sister Rosetta Tharpe perform live, with or without Marie Knight. I did see Mahalia Jackson deliver gloriously during a 1958 Newport Jazz Festival midnight show. Check YouTube.com)
N.B.: The onstage Rosetta and Marie piano keyboard is faced upstage. As those hipped to these director's tricks will immediately suss out, neither Lewis nor Jones play, although they both have the body English down pat. Instead, situated upstage behind a scrim are Deah Harriott at a piano and Felicia Collins on acoustic and electric guitar. They're responsible for the hot licks that Lewis and Jones make look easy.
About the alacrity with which Marie catches on to Rosetta's way of selling those gospel goods: Only a couple minutes before final fade-out on the irresistible opus, which is directed by Neil Pepe for ultimate irresistibility, Brant introduces a plot twist that perhaps show-wise patrons picked up on at the get-go.
Brant's delayed reveal eases the resistance spectators might have about Marie's rapid transformation from innocent teenager to seasoned gospel entertainer. (She's actually the 23-year-old mother of two.) Whether the twist registers as an acceptable plot turn or doesn't, it detracts not one iota from a play with music that's as eat-it-up-with-a-spoon entertaining as anything else around right now.
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