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Theatre in Review: Sweetee (Pershing Square Signature Theatre Center)

Jordan Tyson, Jelani Alladin. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Seeing Sweetee the other night, I had the oddest sensation -- of attending a musical that has yet to be written. Don't get me wrong: Sweetee is a full-length show, running two and a quarter hours. It has a cast of eleven, is rich with incident, and features more songs than anyone knows what to do with. And yet it seems like a ghost of a musical, a promissory note for a show not yet fully conceived. There are many reasons for this: The characters are little more than attitudes in period clothing. The songs are like placeholders for future numbers that will dig deeper. And the book consists of a series of big moments lacking the connective tissue that would string them together into a meaningful narrative. Furthermore, much of what happens is, at least at the moment, downright odd, in dire need of further explanation.

For example, the title character is an adolescent black girl living in small town South Carolina, circa 1936. Her mother, Violet, is a white prostitute -- used up and in ill health, with a crack in her voice that makes her sound like a crone and a cough that suggests she should be in a TB ward. This is a pretty unusual situation, I'm sure you'll agree, and it only gets more striking when we see that Sweetee accompanies Violet on the job, helping her to roll her uncooperative johns and empty their wallets. (Talk about Take Your Daughter to Work Day!) Added to this thoroughly unwholesome situation is a pair of sentimental songs, "Sweetee" and "Mommy Loves Ya," which are meant to make us feel deeply for Violet and the shabby, shopworn love she has to offer her daughter. It's a strange, complicated situation -- you could build a whole show around it -- and, to make it stick, the show's author, Gail Kriegel (libretto and music), needs give it much more time and attention than it gets here.

In a matter of minutes, however, Violet is dead and Sweetee has joined up with Reverend Dan, a minister who collects orphans and puts them into musical ensembles, performing hymns for well-heeled congregations. (During the beguiling overture, we see them at work, playing a ukulele, washboard, and kazoo, as well as a clarinet.) His latest project, which showcases Sweetee, falls flat when his parishioners balk at being entertained by a bunch of black kids; in retaliation, Reverend Dan vows to take his troupe to New Orleans, leaving behind his conventional wife, Hannah (Katherine Weber, making a nice impression in an utterly thankless role). We're constantly told that Reverend Dan is some kind of firebrand -- he has already lost three positions because of his cranky, contrary ways. But, as written -- and as played by Jeremiah James -- he is as pallid a preacher as God ever gave us, a stolid musical theatre leading man whose signature number, "Dream Big," is an exceedingly mild-mannered ballad, lacking any spark of electricity.

Anyway, Reverend Dan, Sweetee, and the rest of the kids are hanging around a train station when they run into Cat Jones, a musician and entertainer, who just happens to be carrying a bag full of real musical instruments. In a number called "Gotta Be Music," Cat plays Santa, bestowing saxes, banjos, and drums on one and all, and -- wouldn't you know it? -- within a minute they are all playing like pros. Has Cat studied with Professor Harold Hill? Is this a manifestation of the Think System? It makes no sense, but, thanks to Cat, who joins the troupe, Reverend Dan and company are ready for the big time -- and all the clich├ęs that come along with show business musicals in which success doesn't provide happiness and friends and lovers fall out.

Cat's arrival on the scene also seriously unbalances the show, thanks to a quirk of casting. Sweetee, the putative heroine, is played by Jordan Tyson, a bright, sunny talent, who, for various reasons -- including the writing and Patricia Birch's direction -- never quite emerges as the dauntless heroine that the musical requires. And when Jelani Alladin, as Cat, takes the stage, his staggering energy and confidence hijacks the proceedings so thoroughly you start to wonder why the musical isn't named Cat. Alladin has been cast as Kristoff in the upcoming Disney musical Frozen, in which he is likely to make a very big impression; his electric presence gives Sweetee a much-needed jolt, but he also steals focus, very nearly making Sweetee a supporting character in her own story.

The second act features some mighty implausible twists, including a brief descent into villainy for Reverend Dan, a manufactured conflict between Sweetee and Cat, and Sweetee's transformation into a self-employed businesswoman, all leading up to the final reunion you knew was coming all along. There's an interesting story here, of a young woman rising up out of squalor, acquiring a couple of mentors along the way, and finally learning to stand on her own two feet -- events set against a background of poverty and racism in the Depression years -- but a great deal of work lies ahead if Sweetee is to realize its potential. That includes finding music with a stronger individual voice and lyrics that really say something. As it stands, the best numbers are the in-performance pieces like "Reverend Dan Ramble" and "What Good, What Good," the latter providing a nice showcase for the radiant Morgan Siobhan Green as Hedy, Sweetee's main rival on and off-stage.

Birch's staging is solid enough, but she can't do much to straighten out the sketchy, jumbled script. Tim Mackabee's set design, a rough wood platform, backed by a wall on which is painted "State law requires colored passengers to ride at rear of bus," certainly makes a strong statement, but, in a show that ranges all over the map, time and again I wasn't sure where many scenes were taking place. Tricia Barsamian's excellent costumes are filled with evocative period details, ranging from gingham frocks for Sweetee and Violet to sleek scarlet-and-gray band uniforms for Reverend Dan's kids to sassy black-and-white tails and gowns for the members of Cat's troupe after he breaks away from Reverend Dan. Kirk Bookman's lighting contains multitudes of looks, including sidelight that brings out all sorts of texture in the set, attractive color washes, and golden sunlight. Working in an intimate space with a four-person ensemble (all of them excellent, playing Doug Katsaros' snazzy orchestrations), Janie Bullard preserves a thoroughly natural sound -- although I do regret the too-obvious mic placement on some of the principals.

At the moment, however, Sweetee is all dressed up with nowhere to go. If it is ever going to get to the next level, everyone involved needs to dream big -- and really write down the story they are trying to tell. -- David Barbour

(2 June 2017)

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