by Carole Di Tosti
The 1930s, depression-era South, is the fearful setting for much of the poignant, uplifting and soulful musical Sweetee in a limited, must-see run. Sweetee is a unified, dynamic production that is well-acted, lyrically sung, precisely directed/choreographed (Patricia Birch), staged and set with minimalistic brilliance.
Gail Kriegel demonstrates her prodigious talents (book, lyrics and music), in her thoughtful characterizations, developing storyline and versatile command of music genres (blues, jazz, gospel, country, etc.). The plot arc interplays with rich themes of malevolence and goodness as it alights upon mother Violet (a fine portrayal by Katy Blake, who takes on other roles), and bi-racial daughter Sweetee (Jordan Tyson in a sterling, exceptional performance).
We cringe at Violet’s and Sweetee’s oppression by southerners (Dave Droxler’s sinister, wicked portrayals are frighteningly real) who perpetuate the twisted, discriminatory folkways. Bigotry magnifies Violet’s and Sweetee’s bleak circumstances as they attempt to make it to the next day with the only talents they know how to use. Because Violet’s fading beauty, demoralized physical condition and unappealing sexual favors no longer lure customers, Sweetee uses her magnificent voice to sing during graveyard services, overseen by her friend and graveyard keeper Mr. Robinson (a terrific portrayal by Cedric Cannon).
Violet and Sweetee have resorted to the macabre and debased to earn their meagre existence. Nevertheless, Violet puts all her hopes in Sweetee , who is the best part of her own life. Though their impoverishment and inferior social status are mind-numbing, Violet and Sweetee do love one another. Their spirit and love reflect immutable values beyond the inhumanity and indecency of the culture which works to destroy them. It is this love that uplifts and carries them through trials. And it is their timeless love that sustains Sweetee throughout her journey, the autonomy and freedom coherently rendered by Kriegel’s book, music and lyrics.
The journey which begins after Violet dies is mythic. Sweetee must, with love’s substance, confront the treachery of racism and sexism that threatens to destroy her goodness at the most unexpected times in her evolution as a person and woman. Along the serpentine voyage to her inner soul’s truth, which eventually leads her to uplift her material life, she meets individuals who spur her on, temp her, challenge her, befriend her, love her. All these individuals manifest threads of light and darkness, kindness and predation, truthfulness and duplicity.
Key among them is Reverend Dan (a multi-layered, perceptive and intriguing performance by Jeremiah James). The reverend hears Sweetee sing, and he and the orphans in his care eventually convince her to join his church. With her assistance he believes he can fulfill his dream of establishing a successful black, orphan band. With the orphans (Morgan Siobhan Green, Adante Carter, Hugh Cha, Amir Royale are excellent) and his wife Hannah (a fine performance by Katherine Weber), who is teaching them music, Reverend Dan hopes to achieve prosperity and gain the social status he never enjoyed growing up in abject poverty as an orphan and outsider.
Another pivotal character Sweetee encounters is Cat Jones (the superb, multi-talented Jelani Alladin whose portrayal hits every emotional note with precision). Sweetee, Reverend Dan and the band meet Cat as they travel to New Orleans. Imbibing of Cat’s adventuresome spirit, Sweetee is entranced, and he performs with them for a time. It is then that Cat and Sweetee establish an emotional bond. Because Sweetee knows her mother’s love, she is able to recognize that Cat Jones is life affirming. But their lives parallel only for so long; a division comes. Kriegel propels Sweetee down another labyrinthine path to evolve her soul and spirit and magnify additional complex themes.
In the South, Reverend Dan’s boon is his white skin color and his religion. That he will “make good” on the voices of the black orphans is a profound irony that Kriegel explores throughout the production. The themes of cultural and economic ostracism promoting self-actualization, themes of the interdependence of altruism and self-respect, and the recognition that we are all on an evolutionary path Kriegel reveals in an explosive event when Sweetee must once again make a decision. With the help of Mr. Robinson, who sets her on her way, alone Sweetee learns to treasure herself as an individual, out from under anyone’s domination, regardless of gender or skin color.
Photos: Matthew Murphy
This smashing production (2 hours one intermission) is in a limited run until 18 June at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For tickets call: 212-279-4200 or visit: http://sweetiethemusical.com/