`Hallelujah' deserves few shouts

lead actors shine

Theater Review

December 18, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Gratifying as it would be to be able to shout "Hallelujah!" for the revised revival of Hallelujah, Baby! at Washington's Arena Stage, the show earns only a qualified hooray.

Few if any reservations apply to the lead performances, however. There's a lot of talent on stage, not to mention pizazz and style. What there isn't is a lot of depth, and that's a major difficulty considering the weightiness of the material.

Scripted by Arthur Laurents, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, this 1968 Tony Award winner attempts nothing less than an examination of race relations in this country throughout the 20th century.

The musical tightens the focus on this broad subject by zeroing in on an aspiring African-American singer named Georgina, played with great elan and presence by Suzzanne Douglas. Georgina, her two love interests (one black, the other white) and her mother progress through the century without aging.

It's a clever, appealing device, and Laurents, who directed this revival, has found an equally clever way to frame the show's lickety-split survey of civil rights. Georgina winds up being a nightclub singer, so Laurents and set designer Jerome Sirlin essentially set the show in a nightclub.

The main elements of the set are a large, centrally located bandstand (the slick musical direction is by David Alan Bunn) and a screen, on which are projected images and dates indicating the passing decades.

The show opens with Georgina performing her modern-day club act, which she interrupts when two back-up performers appear and she informs them that they've shown up in the wrong decade. Georgina then takes us back 100 years to the Deep South, where she and her mother (an outspoken character portrayed by Ann Duquesnay with show-stopping gusto) are working as maids.

By intermission, Georgina has gone from being a maid to playing a maid on stage. After intermission, she sings with the USO during World War II, stars at a swanky club in the 1950s, moves into a posh apartment in the 1960s and then, in a brand-new scene, ends up singing at the present-day White House.

Through it all, her African-American boyfriend, Clem (smooth-voiced Curtiss I' Cook), urges Georgina to look beyond herself - as he himself does, becoming a civil rights leader. For most of the show, however, Georgina is so self-absorbed, it's difficult to understand what Clem and his rival (Stephen Zinnato) see in her.

Nor is it apparent why Georgina finally undergoes a change of heart ("We've all got to get there together/Only way it's gonna get better"). This lyric is from the song "When the Weather's Better." Though cut from the original production, it is reprised several times here. Regrettably, it's one of the more generic numbers in a score that does include a few standouts (especially Duquesnay's "I Don't Know Where She Got It").

Laurents ends the song - and the show - with the actors collectively singing the word, "When?" It's clearly intended to be a provocative political question. In terms of this musical's own ambitions, however, the answer appears to be "not yet."

Hallelujah, Baby! is at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington through Feb. 13. Tickets are $47-$66; call 202-488-3300.

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