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Crowns Shines at Arsht Center With Music, Stories and That Ole Time Religion

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We kicked off Black History month in style last night, attending M-Ensemble's opening night performance of the gospel musical Crowns at the Arsht Center. And it was a night filled with the Holy Trinity of amazing music, captivating stories and the Holy Ghost.

Church hats (or "crowns") are the springboard for an exploration of African American culture and identity as seen through the eyes of a young black woman who is sent to North Carolina from New York to stay with her grandmother after her brother is killed in Brooklyn. Hats dominated the musical in exquisite variety, used by the characters to tell stories that highlight cultural significance and independent identities.

Written for the stage by Regina Taylor, Crowns showcases rap, gospel music and dance, and stars three-time Grammy nominated and Tony Award-winning actress Melba Moore, who set the tone with an opening kick-in-the-pants rendition of In The Morning.

As the young girl settles into her new home, she's embraced by the matriarch Mother Shaw (played by Ms. Moore) and is introduced to the culture of hats via tales told through the eyes of several characters. Be it of spiritual worth, social status, or sentimentality, every story carried it's own significance that ranged from touching to downright hilarious.

While the stage belonged to the incomparable Ms. Moore, the showstopper was without a doubt the uber-talented Lela Elam. As the irrepressible Mabel, her Hat Queen Rules monologue was a fiery amalgam of frenzy and hilarity. She also delivered a powerful (and equally humorous) sermon-like discourse chastising some of the women in the congregation for their haughty attire. Ms. Elam is a force of nature.

The entire cast was outstanding and flawless, bringing Regina Taylor's script to soul-stirring life with verve and power. Old-timey gospel songs like Marching to Zion and That's All Right gave the show its heart and soul, while None But the Righteous had the audience clapping and stomping along. There wasn't a dry eye in the house during Christina Alexander's moving rendition of Eye on the Sparrow.

Rarely does a show move even the firmest of agnostics among us. Yet Crowns managed to do just that. How many theater productions turn into a full on spiritual awakening? The experience alone is worth a visit to this show, even if to just be educated on the rich African American culture it embodies. The only complaint here is that Crowns is only a limited four day run, which now gives you three days to catch it.

C'mon Arsht! Less three-week runs of glossed-over Broadway bullshit like Jersey Boys. Give us more Crowns!

Crowns runs until February 6 at the  Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater (1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami). Tickets are $34. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.

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