Few people in the world could ever claim to have had an indelible impact on music. Mahalia Jackson however, is a definite standout. Her dusky contralto voice and soulful articulations of songs like “Move On Up a Little Higher” and, “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” unequivocally venerated her as the Queen of Gospel. She was one of the first African-Americans to bring gospel music to the mainstream, mixing her Louisiana style of gospel with elements of jazz and blues; some of her biggest influences being Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Celebrating her life and music, Mahalia: A Gospel Musical (book, music and lyrics by Tom Stolz) follows the gospel sensation and civil rights activist from her budding days in her southern Baptist church to her involvement with the civil rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and JCS Entertainment’s house-shaking production shows the audience exactly how she did it.
The book, originally written for the stage for a cast of three actors, has been expanded to include seven main actors and a full ensemble choir and thank heavens it was. The musical opens with the choir in the midst of their Sunday morning worship, and what choral arranger John Thomas has crafted with those voices is nothing short of perfection. Those very first phrases of choral acoustics wash over the audience in a wave of soul-shaking, spine tingling goodness that awakens memories of sweltering on a wooden pew next to wide-brimmed hats and dozing off to the hum of turning pages and hand fans.
The story is driven primarily by monologues which, having a stage scant of sets and props, leaves the actors very prone to being torpid. At times, actress Arielle Cowie fell into the trap of having too many words and not enough context, but she commendably held her own, allowing her estimable vocals to transport the audience through the lively days of young Mahalia Jackson. The true metamorphosis occurred as actress Llettesha Sylvester seamlessly stepped into the shoes of the gospel icon. With a commanding presence and undeniable vocals, Sylvester made it known that she meant business. She took the reins entrusted to her, gave it her own spin, and took the audience along with every step. Every note she sang was a spiritual experience. Her especially chilling rendition of “A City Called Heaven” left the audience speechless and, quite possibly, breathless.
Another notable mention is the prodigious work of Conrad Parris who is no stranger to the stage and screen. Also tasked with a portrayal of prestige, his portrait of Dr. Martin King Jr. seemed to have fallen off the pages of a history book and onto the stage. If you were to filter the set with black and white, you could swear you bearing first-hand witness to the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Kearn Samuel does great work showing how much of a chameleon he can be as gospel mogul Thomas Dorsey and Blind Francis. He slips easily from one character to another with ease, infusing each with his own touch of quirky comedy and individual style and giving the audience a taste of the vocals they can expect in JSC’s upcoming production of Jesus Christ Superstar. As Mahalia Jackson’s sidekick and confidant Mildred Falls, Abeo Jackson showed her incredible knack for comic timing, letting us know that her title of choreographer isn’t her only strong-suit. She does a laudable job of keeping Mahalia on track and in line even when she seems to lose her footing.
Mahalia is a truly powerful story that warms the hearts of those who are fortunate enough to witness it. It gives the audience a reason to shout, cry, laugh, scream, praise, stomp and do whatever their spirits are inspired to do. And for those who are not too inclined to the religious or spiritual side of it, the music alone is reason enough to take a gander. The intricate undertones of blues and jazz coupled with the powerful choral arrangements are enough to make anyone move. The story touches on notes of the civil rights movement that we in society could stand to be refreshed on, especially in times of an imminent dictatorship, xenophobia and an immense need for human empathy.
JCS Entertainment’s Mahalia a Gospel Musical will continue at Queen’s Hall from Tuesday 13th September and will play its final public performance on Sunday 18th September. CLICK HERE for more info
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Isaiah is a graduate of the Musical and Dramatic Academy of New York and is a member of the Actors’ Equity Association through its Equity Membership Candidate Program. He is also a member of The Gentlemen; a hip hop dance group based in San Fernando. He has performed extensively in musicals both local and internationally. Credits include West Side Story (Fireside Dinner Theatre), Chicago (Potsdam Music Theatre) and Crazy For You (Queen’s Hall).
The Author attended the performance on Friday 9th September 2016