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February 12, 2016

There’s a Little CABIN at Encores!

How nice that Encores! reminds us of its original mission with its current reading-slash-production of CABIN IN THE SKY.

There was a time when those heading this series of vintage musicals at City Center claimed they’d mount shows that couldn’t be expected to be revived today for one reason or another. Fine – but of the 65 musicals Encores! has revived since its inception in 1994, 35 were money-making hits when originally produced.

Seven of them even won Tonys as Best Musical. To put it another way, 58 of the Encores! revivals ran longer than the 156 performances than CABIN IN THE SKY managed to muster when it played Broadway in 1940. Does this suggest that neglected, flawed but worthy-in-some-ways works were getting their due?

Frankly, if CABIN were to take residence on Broadway today, it wouldn’t even match its modest original run. Lynn Root’s book about rural African-Americans is pretty simplistic: Petunia loves her husband Joe, but she does wish he’d stop frequenting those places where dice are thrown and Joe always gets thrown for a loss.

This time, Joe has fared even worse. After a terrible nightclub brawl, he’s on his deathbed. The extraordinarily religious Petunia prays to God to save him. And while God doesn’t quite appear, his stand-in – “The Lord’s General” -- does. He gives Joe a six-month period of grace to acquire some heavenly grace and become a better person.

When Joe recovers, Petunia doesn’t even seem surprised. If she were to hear the term “an Act of God,” she wouldn’t immediately think of a natural disaster the way the rest of us would. She always expects God to answer her prayers with a resounding yes.

However, Joe’s recovery gets the attention of Lucifer’s
Son, or “The Head Man,” as Root calls him. (Interesting, isn’t it, that Root gave this name to the person representing hell and not heaven?) Only once do we ever hear The Devil’s Voice, although the person doing the talking isn’t credited in the program. (I’d like to think it’s Garth Drabinsky.)

The Head Man will battle The Lord’s General to get Joe’s soul. So Joe struggles with one temptation after another – and that includes Georgia Brown. This can’t be the Sweet Georgia Brown of the 1925 song, because Root’s Georgia prides herself on not being sweet at all, but sexy; it’s as if she’s always saying “DO fuck with me, fellas.” But can a sexpot’s surface charms beat the power of a good woman’s love and faith?

In the original production, the portly Ethel Waters played Petunia while the svelte Katherine Dunham – yes, the future head of the first self-supporting all-black modern dance troupe – portrayed Georgia. So there was a physical world of difference between the two as well as an equally wide philosophical one. Wives often (but not always) demand more than girlfriends.

Here there’s less of a physical contrast, because the fetching LaChanze’s Petunia isn’t as markedly different in looks and shape from Carly Hughes’ Georgia. Ah, but when a man is used to one woman day after day after day, the one he only sees occasionally looks very good to him.

We could hate Joe for being a shiftless gambler and an adulterer, but what saves him from our wrath is that he tries so hard because he wants to be worthy of Petunia’s love. Although he regrets what he’s missing at the local back room, juke joint and dance hall, he’ll work hard to forget about it.

That’s solid – but Root put Petunia in the trite situation where she walks in at the wrong time, sees Georgia embracing Joe (and not the other way around) and of course reaches the wrong conclusion. Lame as that is, Root exacerbated matters by having Petunia unleash so angry a torrent of words that Joe can’t get a word in edgewise.

But as we all know from real life, when a person is innocent, he will by hook or by crook get in his explanation and not allow himself to be interrupted. Alas, that threadbare plot complication was the best that Root could dream up.

Well, Encores! was always designed to show off the score and here CABIN IN THE SKY does not remotely disappoint. An orchestra that sports nearly three dozen musicians zestfully plays Vernon Duke’s music. Helping them is Jonathan Tunick, who was required to re-orchestrate the score because the original charts couldn’t be found.

In addition to more than a dozen songs from the original show, Tunick was asked to also tackle three interpolations: two traditional songs then popular with African-Americans, and Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe” from CABIN’S 1943 film. Purists will cavil that the show isn’t being 100% faithfully served, but a case can be made that the more songs the better; the less book, better still.

John Latouche was a snazzy lyricist who enjoyed rhyming “ecstasy” with “necks to see” and “tangos” with “gang goes.” In more than one song, he does it the hard way, coming up with triple rhymes when lesser lyricists would have settled for doubles. They’re all good, as was the usual standard of this genius who died much too young (at 41, while he was working on CANDIDE).

The one song that the Encores! audience knows walking in is “Taking a Chance on Love.” LaChanze delivers with the confidence that she’s giving the crowd a hit and its money worth.

Truth to tell, the song doesn’t really fit the moment. But during the show’s genesis, the famously difficult Waters was furious that she hadn’t been given a standout number. That sent Duke into his trunk, where he found a song called “Foolin’ around with Love.” Latouche rewrote it and Waters loved the new incarnation.

So did CABIN IN THE SKY audiences. Never mind if the song didn’t quite fit the book; it was a good tune, wasn’t it, and this was still the era where musicals were expected to produce good songs regardless of how well they supported the narrative.

Waters made it a solo, only permitting the Joe of Dooley Wilson (two years later, Sam in CASABLANCA) to stand next to her and watch her do it. It would have made a charming duet, but Waters wasn’t good at sharing. (We can hear Waters now: “Well, in a few minutes, Dooley’s going to get to sing in the title song, isn’t he? After I start the song, of course.”)

Encores! offers an encore of “Taking a Chance on Love” in which dancers pile onto the stage and remind us that there used to be choruses specifically and simply relegated for dancing. Choreographer Camille A. Brown returns us to a time when white people in musicals were waltzing to show they were in love but blacks were jitterbugging to make the point. Sin always sells, and sinful dances help sell a show.

At Wednesday’s opening, LaChanze had a few tiny note-reaching problems in the first act, but whatever she drank or ate during intermission should be given to anyone with vocal issues, for she was note-perfect in Act Two. This lady can sing the blues, too, as she proved in the torchy “Love Turned the Light Out.”

She turned out to be an expert comedienne, too. When Joe tried to explain his side of the story, LaChanze started a sentence with “Save that shhh” –

Was she really going to say that naughty word? Could it really have been part of script in 1940?

“Shhugar-coated tale,” she continued, getting a good laugh from the audience that enjoyed her fake-out.

The fine Michael Potts may have been cast as Joe because he has a similar look and sound as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson had in the film.

Carly Hughes makes such a bland first impression that she might be called Sweet Georgia Beige. When she gets her eleven o’clock number “Honey in the Honeycomb,” however, she comes alive and delivers it with gusto.

As The Head Man, Chuck Cooper gets the showier costume and role than Norm Lewis’ Lord’s General. But villains always do, don’t they? Both seem a little wasted, but we’re grateful that performers of their stature took the bit parts.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s genial direction threatens to become a bit poky, but always perks up when it’s about to flag. The director’s real achievement is keeping the characters true and real without ever – ever – devolving into stereotype. Even the most militant politically correct police officers will find no violations here. This is a CABIN well worth renting for a night.

         — Peter Filichia



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