Chas­ing a gui­tar hero

Sis­ter Rosetta Tharpe sang and strummed us to­ward rock ’n’ roll, but don’t look for her here

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - CHARLES McNULTY THEATER CRITIC charles.mcnulty@la­times.com Twit­ter: @charlesm­c­nulty

“Shout Sis­ter Shout!” barely whis­pers of a leg­end’s inf lu­ence.

Add “Shout Sis­ter Shout!” to the grow­ing list of mu­si­cals that would make a more po­tent impression as a straight­for­ward re­vue.

The show, which is hav­ing its world pre­miere at Pasadena Play­house, tells the story of Rosetta Tharpe, a gui­tarstrum­ming gospel, blues and rock singer who has been dubbed the god­mother of rock ’n’ roll. More in­flu­en­tial than fa­mous, Tharpe has been res­cued from ob­scu­rity by Gayle Wald’s 2008 book, “Shout, Sis­ter, Shout! The Un­told Story of Rock-and-Roll Trail­blazer Sis­ter Rosetta Tharpe.”

Wald’s bi­og­ra­phy is a source for this mu­si­cal by Randy John­son (the cre­ator, writer and di­rec­tor of “A Night With Ja­nis Jo­plin”) and Ch­eryl L. West (who wrote the book for the Duke Elling­ton mu­si­cal “Play On!”). The show wants to re­pro­duce the “Ja­nis Jo­plin” com­mer­cial magic, but it’s op­er­at­ing with a cat­a­log that’s not as well known and ap­proaches the sto­ry­telling in a man­ner that is ev­ery bit as by-the-num­bers.

West, who wrote the book, sets up a fram­ing de­vice that had me silently groan­ing in my seat. Be­fore Rosetta (Tracy Ni­cole Chap­man) can en­ter the pearly gates of heaven, she has to re­turn to Earth and tell her life story to Isa­iah (Lo­gan Charles), a sui­ci­dal young man who har­bors song­writ­ing dreams.

“Look like he can carry a tune, but he’s white!” Rosetta says af­ter hear­ing Isa­iah play. “And he looks like a bum. And he sounds like he wants to kill him­self. God, please re­con­sider.”

The mu­si­cal, un­for­tu­nately, is unyield­ing on this point. Rosetta is forced to take the bratty young man on a tour of a few im­por­tant land­mark mo­ments in her life. Isa­iah as­so­ciates Rosetta with his mother, who was a huge fan, so it doesn’t seem cool to him to be trail­ing be­hind this mid­dle-aged spir­i­tual singer, but when she blasts her elec­tric gui­tar in his di­rec­tion his re­sis­tance soft­ens.

Chap­man, a stage vet­eran, is a sen­sa­tional singer and per­former, but her style is a bit too pas­teur­ized and pol­ished. She wears the gui­tar like an ac­ces­sory, while the real Tharpe car­ried it as ex­ten­sion of her body, the mu­sic flow­ing down her arm and through her in­stru­ment.

YouTube video of Tharpe re­veals a grit­tier per­former. She’s phys­i­cally larger and a lit­tle more rough and tum­ble in man­ner than Chap­man. Even when she’s rais­ing her voice to God, she’s dig­ging into earthly blues.

One of the prob­lems with any show about a great artist is that rare tal­ents aren’t easy to sim­u­late. Chap­man is an adept mu­si­cal theater per­former, but I can’t say I glimpsed in this por­trayal why Tharpe was such an in­flu­en­tial fig­ure in the de­vel­op­ment of rock ’n’ roll. Isa­iah shouts when Chap­man’s Rosetta does a mod­i­fied duck walk with the gui­tar, a move im­mor­tal­ized by Chuck Berry, but if he weren’t there to an­no­tate the mo­ment, I would have missed it.

Yvette Ca­son, who plays Rosetta’s mother, Katie Bell, and later Ma­halia Jack­son, ac­tu­ally gets a lit­tle closer to the spirit and pres­ence of Tharpe in her mu­si­cal num­bers. Her Etta James­like at­ti­tude, the look of woman who doesn’t give a damn about any­thing but the mu­sic, is con­vinc­ing in a way that tran­scends im­per­son­ation. The swag­ger seems gen­uinely earned by suf­fer­ing.

A trio of male per­form­ers pro­vides rous­ing backup and in­vites au­di­ence mem­bers to raise their arms and clap be­tween scenes. John­son’s di­rec­tion and Keith Young’s chore­og­ra­phy work hard to keep the con­cert-style stag­ing thrum­ming.

The in­for­ma­tion that West’s book pro­vides amounts to a the­atri­cal Wikipedia en­try. We learn that Rosetta was in­se­cure about her looks and mar­ried the first seem­ingly good man who would have her. That gen­tle­man is the Rev. Tharpe (Michael A. Shep­perd), who turns out to be no gen­tle­man. He stops tak­ing Rosetta on his busi­ness trips, and when she com­plains he slugs her.

Her tal­ent, honed in the church, pro­vides a way out. We see her strug­gle with her con­science af­ter she be­comes a star at New York’s Cot­ton Club and a raunch sec­u­lar­ism creeps into her style.

A les­bian af­fair with Marie Knight (An­gela Teek Hitch­man, fill­ing in the per­son­al­ity de­tails left out by the script) comes as a sur­prise in the sec­ond act, as not much has been al­luded to in the way of Rosetta’s pri­vate life. The way Rosetta se­duces Marie to leave Ma­halia Jack­son and sing with her on the road sug­gests a level of con­fi­dence that doesn’t seem com­pletely in char­ac­ter. (She places her own fur coat around Marie’s shoul­ders, mak­ing clear that this of­fer isn’t strictly busi­ness.)

More sur­pris­ing still, we learn at the end that she’s had three hus­bands and that “su­gar di­a­betes” cost her a leg. (This med­i­cal in­for­ma­tion raises some ques­tions about her re­stored phys­i­cal state af­ter death, but su­per­nat­u­ral fram­ing de­vices ob­vi­ously get a free pass.)

The Isa­iah plot, I’m happy to re­port, doesn’t in­trude all that much, though I could have done with­out his sob­bing on the side­lines as Rosetta’s mother cat­a­pulted “Take My Hand, Pre­cious Lord” to the heav­ens. Charles has a fan­tas­tic voice, though his big num­ber late in the sec­ond half feels like an earnest way to wrap up the char­ac­ter’s ex­tra­ne­ous story. The au­di­ence’s ap­plause sub­tly im­plied a ques­tion mark.

Rudi­men­tary and un­ful­filled, “Shout Sis­ter Shout!” should ditch the book and tell Sis­ter Rosetta Tharpe’s story purely through the mu­sic. If a mu­si­cian of her mag­ni­tude isn’t avail­able, per­haps a team of per­form­ers could help us un­der­stand what made her such a trail­blaz­ing fig­ure.

Jim Cox Pho­tog­ra­phy

Pho­to­graphs by Jim Cox Pho­tog­ra­phy

IN “SHOUT SIS­TER SHOUT!” at the Pasadena Play­house, Sis­ter Rosetta Tharpe is por­trayed by Tracy Ni­cole Chap­man, who is flanked here by Thomas Hob­son, left, and Ar­mando Reinaldo Year­wood Jr.

LO­GAN CHARLES por­trays a singer whom Chap­man’s Tharpe is di­vinely or­dered to men­tor.

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