Theater Review - Sleeping with the enemy

Two gospel musicals spotlight women done wrong

Behind every successful woman stands a man. And behind that man stand secrets and lies — at least according to two musicals co-presented by the National Black Arts Festival.

True Colors Theatre Company’s Tambourines to Glory depicts two women who start a storefront church in Harlem with the help of a smooth, streetwise operator who turns out to be the devil himself. Horizon Theatre’s Two Queens, One Castle follows the rags-to-riches story of a singer who discovers that her husband/manager cheats on her — but not with other women.

In both shows, music serves as part of the story as well as the emotional palette, a crucial means for the audiences to connect to the heroines’ feelings. Tambourines’ musical numbers work to make up for the weakness of the show’s nonmusical scenes, while Two Queens tries to substitute song for dramatic development. Neither Tambourines nor Two Queens fully satisfies, though both shows spotlight some dynamic entertainers.

Early in Tambourines to Glory, poet/playwright Langston Hughes introduces two mismatched friends, religious Essie (Ebony Jo-Ann) and “loose” Laura (Gabrielle Goyette). Penniless and single, they decide to pool their strongest resources — Essie’s piety and Laura’s personality — to start a neighborhood church.

The Tambourine Temple Baptist Church gets its wheels greased by Big-Eyed Buddy Lomax (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), a dapper, well-connected hustler who swiftly seduces Laura. Despite Essie’s moral objections, Laura leaps on Buddy’s sleazy moneymaking schemes, such as passing off tap water as Holy Water from the River Jordan, or using “lucky” Bible verses for a numbers racket.

We know Buddy’s a bad guy because he gleefully confesses his satanic nature at the top of the show while wearing a crimson-lined cape. Derricks-Carroll makes the most of the character’s lusty, comedic possibilities. He speaks silkily to the ladies, shoots wicked grins at the audience and playfully breaks into song and dance.

Director Kenny Leon orchestrates lively crowd scenes that show off Susan E. Mickey’s colorful 1950s-era costumes, and sparks fly whenever Buddy mixes things up. But Leon strains to put life in Hughes’ nonmusical scenes. Characters lecture each other, but seldom converse or interact dramatically, and the show deflates every time Laura and Essie sit down for heart-to-heart chats.

Both performers have strong voices, but neither Goyette nor Jo-Ann prove charismatic. Goyette tries hard to be a spitfire, but she merely transforms Laura into an attention-hungry busybody. Jo-Ann’s low-energy performance makes Essie a doormat when she should be a beacon of religious faith.

Composer and keyboard player William Knowles sets Hughes’ lyrics to catchy original music, such as the vintage rock ‘n’ roll sound of “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane” or the torchy jazz of “Love Is on the Way.” But the numerous gospel songs express Tambourines’ more religious exultation than Goyette, Jo-Ann or Hughes’ text ever manage.

Two Queens, One Castle features book and lyrics by Jomandi co-founder Thomas W. Jones II and music composed by J.D. Steele and William Hubbard. But the autobiographical story belongs to singer Jevetta Steele, most famous for crooning Bagdad Cafe’s haunting, Oscar-nominated song “Calling You.”

Two Queens’ set features few props but many mirrors that literally “reflect” on the past. The characters have no names and the narrative unfolds with minimal dialogue.

The plot follows a similar arc to the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It, recounting a showbiz marriage that disintegrates after hitting the big-time. The Wife (Chandra Currelley) and her Husband (“Living Single’s” T.C. Carson) meet as 17-year-olds, marry quickly and embark on a musical career. The soft-tempo love song “Inside Me” conveys the tenderness of their wedding night, while the comic “Flash Flash” hints at their whirlwind life of touring and publicity.

After the Wife begins hearing rumors about her Husband, the truth comes out when she discovers his effete Lover (Jahi Kearse) in their bedroom.

Jones directs a superb cast, led by the dynamic Currelley. A powerhouse “belter,” she dominated the Alliance main stage in shows like Dinah Was, so it’s a thrill to see her close-up at Horizon’s more intimate space.

Carson dances with muscular confidence in the funky “Gotta Move” and brings intensity to his songs, although he reaches for deeper notes than he comfortably hits. Kearse makes the underwritten Lover a magnetic character whose queeny outbursts bring the play’s airy storytelling down to earth.

But Two Queens’ plot rushes past in a blur, with the couple turning, seemingly in minutes, from singing newlyweds to wealthy celebrities with two sons. And the song lyrics frequently prove too vague to fill in the gaps. Jones found a hit musical with Hip 2: Birth of the Boom, but more recently, with shows like this one, Slam and Body Snatchers: The Musical, he has gravitated to flawed projects.

The production also features the most misguided sets imaginable. A round central platform doubles as the couple’s circular bed, but several times the top tilts back at an angle, so it resembles nothing so much as a giant commode with the seat up. Laughable at its first appearance, it turns one of the biggest numbers into a joke. The Wife sings her cathartic, learning-to-love-life-again song “The Rivers Are Swollen” while standing in the big toilet. If Currelley had any less charisma, she’d probably be laughed off the stage. You want to yell, “Don’t flush yourself, Wife! He’s not worth it!”

Two Queens’ Wife learns to rely on herself and her own talent, while Tambourines’ Laura eventually opens herself to God in a song reminiscent of Jimmy Swaggart’s notorious “I have sinned against you” confession. Tambourines to Glory and Two Queens, One Castle each hinge on strong African-Women who look to men for strength and live to regret it. Neither musical truly transports the audience, but each suggests that the sisters are better off on their own.