Celebration Arts’ production of Mahalia truly is a monumentally inconsistent show. When actress Elise Reese is singing Mahalia Jackson’s signature gospel standards, it’s an incredible, inspirational experience, drawing on music closely identified with one of the great vocalists of this, or any, age. Reese—a big woman, wearing a wig for this role—has a soulful voice that can hit the high and low notes. She gets into the style and spirit of her famous character, bringing a sense of Jackson’s vocal (and personal) power and authority to Celebration Arts’ little stage.
But when Reese stops singing, and the show tries to function as a docudrama about Jackson’s life and times, things very nearly fall apart. Playwright Tom Stolz has a wooden way with words; the actors bobble their lines; and, at times on opening night, Reese didn’t always seem entirely certain which scene they were doing. (She kept referring to a yellow notepad, tucked between the pages of a Bible she carried through most scenes.)
Ah, but when Reese got back to singing! She doesn’t get to all of Jackson’s best numbers—I kept waiting for “In the Upper Room”—but she works in plenty of the ones that made Mahalia famous. There was a moving rendition of “Deep River,” a toe-tapping take on “Dig a Little Deeper,” a rumbly “Elijah Rock” and (of course) the standard that’s probably identified with Jackson more than any other: “I Will Move On Up a Little Higher.” We’re talking bedrock, hand-clapping music about faith and glory and heaven. This music represents the American dream of here and hereafter during Mahalia’s time the way George Frideric Handel’s Messiah represents the dream of England during the 1750s. (And Mahalia’s concerts of the 1950s and 1960s, like the performances of Messiah after Handel’s death, were stadium-style events that drew thousands, transcending musical categories and bringing many in the audience to tears.)
But back to the show at Celebration Arts. See it for the singing and muddle through the rest. My advice to the director would be to cut many of the little connective dramatic scenes and spend more time letting Reese work in additional verses from each of the songs in the show. I’ll bet she knows all the words already.