Local Arts Reviews

Mahalia!: Too Full of the Lord's Music to Keep Quiet

Birkman Chapel, Concordia University

through April 8

Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min

Austin Playhouse's musical production of Mahalia! takes place, fittingly enough, in the Birkman Chapel at Concordia University, although it is hard to imagine the Lutherans of Concordia belting out Southern Baptist gospel songs the way Mahalia Jackson once did in revivalist tents or Carnegie Hall. But after such a display of power singing by Jacqui Cross in the title role (no wonder it's called the Bible Belt), they might want to try, so stirring is Cross' readings of Jackson's songbook. There is no way an audience can refrain from clapping along to the infusion of energy and good religion encapsulated in those soulful, four-four time numbers.

Tom Stolz's musical biography of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson comes in two standard parts: Jackson's rise to the top and what happens after she gets there. The former is far more entertaining. Watching the girl from New Orleans singing along to a Bessie Smith song, chatting to God for advice (and He hears, her, you know He does), heading up to Chicago with the good intentions of becoming a nurse, and -- with God's ear-bent acquiescence -- unexpectedly hitting the road to encounter fame and fortune is delightful. Cross' performance of Stolz's theatrical version of Jackson is of a woman whose belief in the Almighty was so strong that nothing fazed her. Her innocence in the growing rush of fame was refreshing and honest: Jackson had no expectations; everything was a gift from God. She withstood the personal fears, too, even as she was bombarded with requests to sing at venues that are the palaces of more experienced, classically trained singers. When Cross sings "Calvary" -- the selection highlighting Jackson's first appearance at Carnegie Hall -- well, there are probably words for such a performance, but they only exist in heaven.

Had Stolz only written a 90-minute work, the play would be tremendous. But after the intermission, nothing comes close to the emotional, spiritual uplift of that first act. Once she's made it, Jackson's story is satisfying but hardly as moving, and the evening wears a little with no real dramatic urgency. Jim Crow, Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis, and her own pilgrimage to Jerusalem -- these historical flashes of Jackson's era aren't as moving as watching the joyful, innocent, and rock-solid singer grow from a young girl with an awesome voice and more awesome belief in God into an assured woman capable of moving mountains with that voice.

Ultimately, however, this evening is all about the singing, and it is uniformly excellent, no matter which act. The amazing Cross receives just as amazing backing from Janis Stinson and Billy Harden. During brief scenes, Stinson and Harden play the swirl of characters that surrounded Jackson during her life: from strict aunt to blind organist to Harden's stirring turn as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. During the songs, Stinson and Harden accompany Cross or sing along. Some of the best moments are when the three go at it a cappella, for intricate, soulful songs that seem to flow from characters too full of the Lord's music to keep quiet.

Director Don Toner has staged a neat chamber piece with his trio of talented actor/singers, allowing the singing to be spectacular and the rest of the play to operate simply. Sylvia Tate has costumed the characters to move from the 1920s to the 1970s with her always excellent eye for detail. And while it takes a close listening to know exactly when in the story events take place, all of the stage "stuff" is just there to give a structure on which to hang these wonderful songs so excellently performed.

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Mahalia!, Austin Playhouse, Don Toner, Mahalia Jackson, Jacqui Cross, Tom Stolz, Janis Stinson, Billy Harden, Sylvia Tate

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