The only large thing about the M Ensemble company and its latest production, a gospel musical titled Mahalia, is Charlette Brown-Seward's voice.
And honey, it is a big 'un.
Despite the theater's physical limitations its seating capacity is approximately 60, and the stage is maybe seven feet deep this show is all glorious boom and little bust. Plus the small space works well with the broad and wondrous voice of Brown-Seward, who plays legendary soprano Mahalia Jackson.
Simultaneously thunderous and melodic (but oddly not very soprano), the leading lady fills the teeny-tiny room with a spirit so strong that even this (very) white reviewer found herself bopping and a-tappin' along. And because Brown-Seward's bombastic voice all but devours the little theater, thus pushing Mahalia forward, the performance is destined for, at the very least, soothing lyrical ointment. It is not only enjoyable but also good fun.
The show, which marks M Ensemble's season finale, takes us on a tour of a few pivotal events in Jackson's life. To help the audience concentrate on the action, the set is kept clean and minimal a few painted crosses adorn the walls, a phone, two chairs and the lighting is crisp, sharp, and pointed. If the digs are sparse, the cast is more so. While Brown-Seward stars, castmates Miriam King and Roy G. Phillips Jr. play multiple roles, easily slipping out of a jacket, dress, or hat and into another character.
The production begins with the singer's prestardom days in New Orleans. Her overbearing aunt, played by King, tries to influence her career, insisting she keep her chords in one place and stick to the Lord's work. That translates to strictly gospel-singing, and the young songstress is warned by her mother figure that any deviations will lead her to "walkin' with the Devil." When her cousin, played by Roy G. Phillips Jr., protests, saying he wants her to have fun with her singing, the wry snap-back from Auntie is, "I'm her fun."
Undaunted, Jackson travels to Chicago, paying her way by singing with gospel groups and recording for Decca before signing with Apollo Records and then Columbia Records. Along the way, the songstress performs at Carnegie Hall and on the Ed Sullivan Show. But Jackson has some inner demons a conflict that involves the direction the sign o' the times is taking her music. Indeed early in her career she resists singing gospel in clubs with "scantily dressed women wearing angel wings," and later she disagrees with Columbia when the label requests she take Jesus' name out of her lyrics.
Her constant cheerleader and sidekick King delivers some graceful, sweet-sounding soprano highlights, even though she appears slightly lanky onstage when she's paired with Brown-Seward's ever-huggable main character. Phillips adds levity first as Jackson's cousin, next as composer Thomas Dorsey, and then as a blind keyboardist named Francis before finally sprinkling some righteous punch as Martin Luther King Jr. during a riveting scene taken from the history books in which the gospel star sings prior to King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
One part history lesson, one part play, and two parts musical, Mahalia is a warm, inviting, and (it's not pushing it to say) inclusive production. Although the historical timeline is informative and perhaps necessary at first, it feels slightly rushed and crammed-in postintermission, adding some unnecessary and unfortunate clunkiness to the performance. You begin wondering if your time is better spent at the library than in the darkness, eagerly awaiting some more lyrical ointment.
Indeed Mahalia is at its best when Brown-Seward belts 'em out. It is most pithy during her inner dialogue and prayers with Jesus, her direct-addressing of the audience, and some in-car conversations with Miriam on the way to a civil rights speak-out.
Founded in 1971, M Ensemble bills itself as Florida's oldest established African-American theater company. If you want an Earl Grey-sippin', Wedgwood teacup crowd or production, look elsewhere. Here one feels and at times participates in the performance as it happens. That means lots of hardy handclapping and even some singing along.
Really, you need not wander further than the Playbill to get the idea: The charming King, who plays the organist who coincidentally is also named Miriam, is referred to as "Miss Miriam" in her bio, and Brown-Steward, by day a high school theater teacher, gives "special thanks" to "Charlette's Web (my students!)."
The real-life Jackson died in 1972 of heart failure. And in the close quarters of the M Ensemble theater, when Brown-Seward emerges for the final scene in a white suit, it is with heavy hearts and clinging ears that we let her go. We do not want her to cross the River of Jordan, but if she must, she might as well go singing.
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