Sing out, sister

Mahalia: A Gospel Musical

Here, take my hand, precious Lord!

Here, take my hand, precious Lord!

Photo By PHOTO by Chris Mueller

Mahalia: A Gospel Musical, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; $15-$48. The Guild Theater, 2828 35th Street; (916) 520-0827; Through September 23.

Guild Theatre

2828 35th St.
Sacramento, CA 95817

(916) 732-4673

Rated 5.0

Before rap or Motown, before the Beatles or Elvis, there was Mahalia Jackson—a black gospel singer with such power and presence that her 1947 recording of “Move on Up a Little Higher” sold an astonishing 8 million copies, with appeal for listeners of all races. In 1950, she became the first gospel singer to appear at Carnegie Hall. Her vocal talent—and her message of hope and joy—got her numerous high-profile gigs on national television; she performed at JFK’s inaugural ball; and she sang “How I Got Over” at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom just before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. She died in 1972—40 years ago—and since, traditional gospel typically gets short shrift on the airwaves nowadays, the star status she achieved in life has not entirely passed down to the present generation.

All of these factors will make Mahalia: A Gospel Musical both a delight and a revelation for many viewers. It’s part concert, part biography (with a light touch). Actress Bernardine Mitchell of Atlanta pumps out energy on a continuous basis for more than two hours, leaving the stage only briefly as she sings—in character—many of the gospel standards and Negro spirituals that form the core of Mahalia’s songbook. “Elijah Rock,” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” “Deep River,” “Keep Your Hand on the Plow”—it’s an impressive list of American musical landmarks. (And don’t forget, when the great Czech composer Antonín Dvorák visited New York and conducted at the then-new Carnegie Hall in the 1890s, he surprised his hosts by saying “The future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies,” including many tunes Mahalia would sing at Carnegie decades later.)

Supporting performers Renee Clark (who primarily portrays Mahalia’s pianist Mildred Falls, and also serves as music director) and Willis Hickerson (a pastor from Solano County) work the keyboards; Sacramento actor Anthony D’Juan, a B Street Theatre company member, does dramatic cameos. Director Elisabeth Nunziato, who clearly “gets it,” keeps the momentum going as the show flows from song to song.