‘Shout Sis­ter Shout!’ in­deed

>>> The Pasadena Play­house’s new mu­si­cal “Shout Sis­ter Shout!” — about the life and mu­sic of pi­o­neer­ing gospel singer Sis­ter Rosetta Tharpe — is no doubt one of the only orig­i­nal cre­ations for the stage born in a souvenir gift shop. That’s pre­cisely how t

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY RANDY LEWIS randy.lewis@la­times.com Twit­ter: @RandyLewis2

For mu­si­cal’s direc­tor, it all be­gan with a bio of a gospel pi­o­neer.

“When a pro­duc­tion of ‘A Night With Ja­nis Jo­plin’ was in Cleve­land in 2013, I de­cided to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — I wanted to see the mu­seum and see all their Ja­nis stuff,” John­son said the day af­ter Sun­day’s world pre­miere per­for­mance.

“You exit through the mu­seum’s gift shop,” he re­called. “I al­ways get a mug or some­thing when I go to mu­se­ums, and while I was look­ing around, I saw this book on the shelf with a pic­ture of this amaz­ing woman on the cover. It was [Gayle F. Wald’s 2007 bi­og­ra­phy] ‘Shout, Sis­ter, Shout!’ My first thought was, ‘That’s the best ti­tle for a mu­si­cal I’ve ever seen.’

“I took it home and read it and de­cided that this story needs to be told,” he said. “I took my time in find­ing a fol­low-up to ‘A Night With Ja­nis Jo­plin,’ and when I found this I thought it was the right con­tin­u­a­tion for my ex­plo­ration of the great Amer­i­can mu­si­cal artists.”

He brought in col­lab­o­ra­tor Ch­eryl L. West to write the book on which they could hang a show that would ex­plore the reper­toire of the woman Bob Dy­lan once de­scribed as “a pow­er­ful force of na­ture — a gui­tar-play­ing, sing­ing evan­ge­list.”

This John­son-di­rected pro­duc­tion in­cludes, among more than a dozen songs, gospel stan­dards such as “Up Above My Head” and “Strange Things Are Hap­pen­ing,” as well as some of her for­ays into jump blues like “Tall Skinny Papa.” Those are per­formed live with con­sid­er­able verve by the show’s star, Broad­way veteran Tracy Ni­cole Chap­man, with roof-rat­tling sup­port from an on­stage house band as­sem­bled by mu­si­cal direc­tor Rahn Cole­man.

As Times theater critic Charles McNulty ar­gued in his re­view, this in­au­gu­ral in­car­na­tion em­ploys a po­ten­tially corny fram­ing de­vice in which the singer, who was a full-blown gospel mu­sic star in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, is re­manded by God to help save the soul of a young white rock dude-in-cri­sis be­fore she can pass through the Pearly Gates.

Still, much of the joy in the show is in the mu­si­cal per­for­mances by Chap­man and costars Yvette Ca­son (who shines as Tharpe’s singer-preacher mother, Katie Bell, and in a cameo as an­other gospel su­per­star, Ma­halia Jack­son) and An­gela Teek Hitch­man (as Tharpe’s ’50s col­lab­o­ra­tor Marie Knight).

Even rel­a­tive theater new­comer Lo­gan Charles — the would-be rock star — by the end of the show sum­mons a con­vinc­ing de­gree of soul with his own voice thanks to his su­per­nat­u­rally prompted meet­ing with Tharpe.

Chap­man sees an el­e­ment of divine guid­ance be­hind her route into the show, which con­tin­ues through Aug. 20.

“I went in to au­di­tion for Marie,” Chap­man said in a separate in­ter­view. “I hadn’t done theater in a while be­cause I was rais­ing my chil­dren here in L.A.,” she said re­fer­ring to her kids — ages 6 and 8 — she and her hus­band had af­ter re­lo­cat­ing from New York to Sher­man Oaks about 10 years ago.

“When I did the au­di­tion, they told me ‘Go learn Rosetta’s stuff and come back,’ ” she said. “I was shocked and sur­prised that I ended up get­ting the [lead] role. But be­cause I knew her and her mu­sic, I re­ally wanted to honor this woman.”

For John­son too Chap­man’s au­di­tion was a light­ning rod mo­ment.

“When I heard her sing, watched her

read, I just knew — this woman is Rosetta, and she ac­tu­ally plays the gui­tar,” John­son said. “When you hold th­ese au­di­tions, you in­tu­itively know who’s right the minute they walk in the door.”

John­son doesn’t re­fer to “Shout Sis­ter Shout!” — or “A Night With Ja­nis Jo­plin,” for that mat­ter — as a “juke­box mu­si­cal,” in­stead de­scrib­ing both as “artist legacy por­traits.”

“We tell the sto­ries of their lives through the mu­sic,” he said. “It’s not a great­est-hits re­vue.”

Thus, there’s no built-in nos­tal­gia fac­tor in this show as in so many mu­si­cals rooted in pop hits of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

In­deed, although Tharpe is a piv­otal fig­ure in the world of gospel mu­sic for the way she wed­ded sting­ing gui­tar strum­ming and so­los from sec­u­lar blues and jazz tra­di­tions with the in­spi­ra­tional con­tent of spir­i­tual mu­sic, she’s lit­tle known to many con­tem­po­rary mu­sic fans, and to most the­ater­go­ers.

“The big­gest dif­fer­ence between this show and oth­ers that I’ve seen like ‘Mo­town: The Mu­si­cal’ and ‘Jer­sey Boys’ [the homage to the Four Sea­sons] is that most peo­ple don’t know who Sis­ter Rosetta Tharpe is,” Chap­man said.

“We’re cre­at­ing a ver­sion of her that is in­tro­duc­ing most peo­ple to her,” said Chap­man, who con­fessed to learn­ing a thing or two her­self in the process of don­ning Sis­ter Rosetta’s sig­na­ture white gospel robe and strap­ping on one of her go-to Gib­son elec­tric gui­tars.

“The big­gest thing I learned is that she was a child prodigy who started sing­ing when she was 4 to 6 years old,” Chap­man said. “You think about child prodi­gies to­day and the ex­pe­ri­ences they go through, then think about this girl at 6 years old trav­el­ing through the South in the ’20s with the racism and Jim Crow laws and all the things she saw. That had to af­fect her in a deep way.”

Mainly, Chap­man, John­son, West and the rest of the “Shout Sis­ter Shout” team hope the show will em­body the mes­sage on Tharpe’s epi­taph af­ter she died in 1973 in Philadel­phia at 58:

“She would sing un­til you cried and then she would sing un­til you danced for joy,” it reads. “She helped to keep the church alive and the saints re­joic­ing.”

Jim Cox Pho­tog­ra­phy

TRACY NI­COLE CHAP­MAN, cen­ter, stars as singer and gui­tarist Rosetta Tharpe in “Shout Sis­ter Shout!” at Pasadena Play­house. Thomas Hob­son, left, and Ar­mando Reinaldo Year­wood Jr. also per­form.

From the col­lec­tion of Terry Cryer

THARPE is cred­ited with inf lu­enc­ing Elvis Pres­ley, Chuck Berry, Lit­tle Richard and oth­ers.

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