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There's a revival meeting over at Raleigh Little Theatre this month! In the opening production of their 2017-18 season, director Terra Hodge has assembled some soulful piano, six dynamite singing voices, a list of gospel songs as long as your arm, and a liberal dose of the good old oral tradition. Swirling them all together brings us Regina Taylor's Crowns, the story of why our mothers all wore hats, and what it meant to have an arsenal of hats at your disposal.
In casting Crowns, Hodge needed actresses. She knew where to get those. But since Crowns is a musical, she was going to need singers. And she knew where to get those, too. The tricky part was, did she need actresses who could sing, or did she need singers who also knew how to act? And she knew the answer to that, too. Her final selection garnered her five of the best singing voices in the Triangle area: one from her own band, and two that are actual opera singers! Now how can you top that? She needed one more component. She needed a man – but not just any man; she needed a man who could play all the men: preacher, husband, brother, student, bridegroom. And he needed to be able to sing, too!
They say that if a director gets the right cast, 90% of her work is done. Not by a long shot. Crowns isn't just a musical. It's two-and-a-half hours of solid gospel tunes, 28 of 'em, from the first word uttered to the last curtain call. So it was practice, practice, practice. Anyone who wasn't the soloist at any particular time was part of the back-up. So it was all six people, all the time. And did I mention the oral tradition? There are stories to be told. And costumes; I mean, these ladies are dressed to the nines! Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes. And hats – and I do mean hats.
Lynette Barber plays Mama Shaw (plays in her own band!). India Williams plays Mabel (opera singer!). Chanda Branch plays Velma. She's an actress in Broadway musicals! Aya Wallace (RLT Cantey Award-winner) plays Wanda. Latoya Smith is Jeanette (opera singer!). Joshua Johnson plays all of the men and is a formally trained vocalist and jazz musician. To top it all off, RLT introduces Chelsey Moore as Yolanda. This was her first time on any stage anywhere. Holy SMOKE!
You put these six people on stage together, and they're gonna raise the roof! Backed by a couple of first-rate musicians themselves, Musical Director Carolyn Colquitt on keyboards and Bernard Clark on percussion, and you've got everything you need to get the place rockin'.
When Chelsey Moore gets up and sings the gospel standard, "I've Got Joy Like a Fountain," in that high sweet voice; no theatre audience has ever heard that voice before. When Mama sings "None But the Righteous," or when Mabel belts out "Take Me to the Water," they are backed by a quintet of professional-grade vocalists. All six actors, all on stage, all the time! I have not seen this level of interactive, coherent, dynamic ensemble work in a very long while.
Now, if you are one of those people who likes God to show up when he's supposed to – on Sunday – well, you'd better wait to see this show 'til Sunday, 'cause God is here, honey! With this kind of praise and worship going on, He's not going to want to be anyplace else. You can call it a play; you can call it a musical, because it is; but what it truly is, is a revival! Right down to the baptism. No place else.
Raleigh Little Theatre presents Crowns now through Sunday, September 17, the first in their Season of Groundbreakers. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.