Drunk, streetwalker, apparently little educated Violet (Katy Blake) doesn’t literally spell the name “Sweetee” any time during Sweetee—the new musical with book, music and lyrics by Gail Kriegel and directed and choreographed by Pat Birch at the Signature Theatre—but she’s probably responsible for her daughter (Jordan Tyson) being tagged that way rather than the more likely “Sweetie.”
Whatever, the mixed-race 16-year-old—first seen singing her own songs for money on a small, “steamy” South Carolina town’s streets in 1942—immediately proves to be a true sweetie. She’s also a confident and determined young girl who’s not certain about continuing to live with Violet, whom, by way, she doesn’t condemn for the very active body-selling career.
After some consideration, Sweetee does join four other young performers—orphans all. They’re part of Rev. Dan’s Band—violinist Thomas (Adante Carter), clarinetist/saxophonist Abraham (Hugh Cha), washboardist Murphy (Amir Royale), banjoist Hedy (Morgan Siobhan Green)—that clergyman Reverend Dan (Jeremiah James) has put together as part of a deep commitment to giving otherwise rootless children a productive mission.
Reverend Dan’s bold plan is to turn the troupe that Sweetee initially joins with reluctance into a national success as well as a money-earner for other orphans (and presumably for orphanages). His big dream serves as the dramatic arc for Sweetee, the immediate stakes being getting to jazz capital New Orleans.
Along the way to what audience members correctly assume will work out well, any number of complications blot the on-to-New-Orleans march. Dan’s marriage to Hannah (Katherine Weber)—whose clergyman father is responsible for the parishes where Dan’s troubles have accumulated—goes on the rocks, and she hits the road home. In their persistent travels the gang meets energetic entertainer Cat Jones (Jelani Alladin), who pushes for Dan’s kids to devote their repertoire to swingier material rather than too-familiar gospel songs. Sweetee falls for Cat, but their romance is another one that heads into trouble. Most severely, Dan, thinking he’s fallen in love with Sweetee, oversteps a line that causes a six-year rift between Sweetee, Dan and the rising band.
Since Sweetee takes park in the blatantly racist South, a certain amount of those national issues work their way into the proceedings. For one, Dan and the others hitch a truck ride with a shabby man (Dave Droxler, working a handful of roles), who pulls a rifle on them when they reach that day’s destination and forces them to dig ditches. It’s an unpleasant development, and yet may not be enough to reflect just how imperiled the band would have been in those years.
So as Sweetee—who by 1946 has founded a New York City beauty products business (not unlike Celie’s eventual businesswoman status in The Color Purple)—and pals journey literally and figuratively, a spectator could be excused for assuming bookwriter-composer-lyricist Kriegel has adapted her tuner from a novel.
The tuner certainly has the feel of someone awkwardly transferring the sprawling events of a complicated narrative from page to stage. Violet, for instance, drops out of the tale, only to return in an odd late sequence. Hannah disappears and reemerges for some quick updates and resolutions. Dan’s feelings for Sweetee, suddenly revealed, are a kind of huh-what? development. Sweetee’s change from sweet ambitious youngster to efficient perfume administrator is a startling leap.
Nevertheless, much can be forgiven in a musical that so firmly has it heart in the right place, and that’s definitely Sweetee. Its pluses are many, starting with strong voiced Tyson, who is—get this—a Marymount sophomore. A young actor with grit cutting the inborn sweetness, she is believable and charming throughout, without ever becoming cloying.
On a simple Tim Mackabee set that looks like the outside of a rural barn and on which various accessories are placed and removed, director-choreographer Birch has her keen way with the cast. As they act, sing, dance and play their instruments—some of them cheerfully looking more like actors who move—they score high on the appeal meter.
James, with his tall-leading-man looks, holds the stage when the focus changes from Sweetee to Rev. Dan, although costumer Tricia Barsamian might have given him a less highly polished pair of black shoes. After all, he’s not a man with discretionary money in his suit. (Otherwise, the costumes, including Violet’s unstitched-hem housedress, are quite good—the colors faded or bright when appropriate.) Alladin’s Cat Jones is Sammy Davis Jr. hip. All the others, which also means Cedric Cannon as older Sweetee partisan Mr. Robinson, clearly look as if they love what they’re doing, always a rich musical ingredient.
What about the music in this musical? The songs are always tunefully serviceable as delivered by the actors and the small enhancing band, conducted by Joshua Zecher-Ross. The best songs—“Joyful, Joyful” and “Rev. Dan’s Band Ramble”—belong to the group. The ballads have some power but maybe aren’t the kind auditors long to hear over and over again once they quit the premises.
One repeated number is “Dream Big,” which can also stand for what Kriegel and company set out to do. At doing it, they nicely prosper.