Let the testifying begin! Some of that old time religion is currently kneeling-room-only at New Haven’s Long Wharf theatre where a rambunctious revival of “Crowns”, the gospel musical, is currently in residence.
The show, presented in association with McCarter Theatre Center (which seems to be every Connecticut theatre’s producing partner lately), is the definition of joyful noise.
Written and directed by Regina Taylor and based on the work by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, “Crowns” is the coming-of-age story of Chicago teenager Yolanda (a remarkable Gabrielle Beckford) who is sent to live with her grandmother (Shari Addison) one summer in South Carolina. Yolanda is a tough, bitter street kid who is mourning the loss of her brother, a shooting victim in the Englewood section of Chicago. Upon arriving in South Carolina, she soon finds herself at odds with her Grandmother’s many rules which include a steady dose of church on Sunday. Can you see where this is going?
Given that the musical, which celebrates African-American tradition and culture specifically of its elaborate hat-wearing parishioners, is nearly completely sung through, “Crowns” depends much on the casting of women who have no trouble with powerhouse vocals. This is not an issue at Long Wharf. In addition to Beckford and Addison, the accomplished singers include Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope and Danielle K. Thomas (who also serves as Dance Captain). Lawrence Clayton, portraying all the male characters, completes this fine company which handles a range of music from African tribal folk and gospel to hip hop and rap. And just about all of it is pitched to the rafters. You will not snooze.
Under her vibrant direction, Taylor’s excellent cast works as a true ensemble and one must also mention the superb musicians, Music Director Jaret Landon and David Pleasant. The men may only number two, but sound like a full orchestra here handling piano, keyboard, guitar and a wide variety of percussion instruments. They are amazing. Credit also Emilio Sosa’s costuming, offering an imaginative array of picturesque hats and Bradley King’s moody lighting, which adds depth and meaning to many scenes. Rasean Davonte Johnson’s complex projections also deserve more praise here than space allows.
Although a bit wearying at just under two hours with no intermission, “Crowns”, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, easily succeeded in winning over Long Wharf’s capacity audience on opening night. This exuberant production is a contagious delight which might just might make you consider (if you haven’t been in a while) returning to church.
“Crowns” continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven through Sunday, May 13. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.