Monday, March 11, 2019

Marie and Rosetta ☼ ☼ ☼

I wanted to love this show. I really, really did. The first fifteen minutes, when Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the veteran performer, and Sister Marie Knight, the ingenue, are getting to know each other as they rehearse their music, are magic. Sister Rosetta sings "This Train" and then Sister Marie sings "Were You There?" and the walls are ready to implode with joy. When they sing "Didn't it Rain?" together, I found it almost impossible to remain in my seat. I needed to jump out into the aisles and dance like I was testifying in the church where this music was born.

Michelle E. Jordan as the middle-aged Sister Rosetta and Marissa Rudd as twenty-three year old Sister Marie have a vocal chemistry that gives us shivers, especially when they sing together, and even more so when Marie's piano is added to Rosetta's guitar.

Problem Number One is that neither Marie nor Rosetta are actually playing their instruments. The piano is played by William Liberatore and the guitar by Schuyler McFadden, off stage. The two actors pretend to be playing, but it is just pretend (there is one place where Jordan does appear to be actually playing a guitar solo. Hard to tell.) The difference between actual performance and pretend performance is hard to overcome.

Problem Two is the story. We would expect that the glorious beginning, when the two women create an act they can perform at their various gigs, would continue into letting us see those gigs, including the social and racial politics they talk about encountering. Their music would grow into something even stronger, and we would feel more for these two women, ahead of their time, trying to burst into a world not at all ready for them.

And of course, the unmentioned Problem Number Three: Everyone knows by now that Marie and Rosetta were lovers. Why author George Brant chose to ignore it is a mystery. This knowledge hangs over the closeness we see on stage between the two women. Its absence reinforces the sense of pretend that the show can never quite overcome.

Such a shame. Such beautiful voices. Such an important story -- we are talking about nothing less than the birth of rock and roll here, as it grew out of the church, that fought back to keep its great singers from singing music that it considered blasphemous. Racism, sexism, even performerism -- the segment that details white people throwing pennies at the black performers as an act of derision is a stunner. More of this, please. More singing together. And less pretending.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Rock/Gospel Division awards "Marie and Rosetta" Three Stars. At the outset I told my partner we had a "Five Star Show" happening here. Perhaps it will become so as the run continues. It is still worth coming to see, if only for the first fifteen minutes and the potential of so much more. 

"Marie and Rosetta"
Lucie SternTheater
1305 Middlefield Road
Through March 31

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