Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

Poignant musical bio rouses critic’s emotions

Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Sharon E. Scott plays the title role in “Mahalia Jackson: Just As I Am.” Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Sharon E. Scott plays the title role in “Mahalia Jackson: Just As I Am.” Photo by Eric Chazankin.

While watching “Mahalia Jackson: Just As I Am” at the Cinnabar Theater, I decided to do something rare — turn off my intellect.

And just let myself feel.

It worked.

I found Sharon E. Scott totally engaging as Jackson.

Throughout the two-hour show, she illustrated the gospel legend’s ability to inject tears and prayers into a song.

She also turned the vocalist into a flesh-and-blood character (as opposed to a saintly one) by indicating that she “loved to cuss” and was human enough to love loving the pay scale she’d attained.

Scott, in fact, made the gospel singer’s life so real, and so poignant, my eyes watered several times.

And despite being white, I repeatedly felt the intense pain of black struggles in America.

Especially in a scene in which Jackson confronted a bigoted Southern cop who robbed her, threatened to beat her and, in an instant, transformed her from star into sub-human.

Sharon E. Scott, in the title role, is interviewed by John Shillington as journalist Louis “Studs” Terkel in “Mahalia Jackson: Just As I Am.” Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Sharon E. Scott, in the title role, is interviewed by John Shillington as journalist Louis “Studs” Terkel in “Mahalia Jackson: Just As I Am.” Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Scott also had the good sense to step back and let Jobn Shillington grab the spotlight as writer-broadcaster Louis “Studs” Terkel recalling a 1927 flood — and rumors of dead black bodies being used as sandbags at the New Orleans levees.

Scott’s gospel chops were extremely strong, but to keep gravitas and godliness levels in check, she injected periodic touches of humor.

Never better than when sizzling on the double entendre-filled “Kitchen Man.”

Scott, who herself penned the script after enormous research, is a top-drawer performer. Smart enough to encourage rhythmic audience clapping and sing-along.

Which was especially effective on “We Shall Overcome.”

She periodically excelled on material that went beyond gospel (the pop hit “Crying in the Chapel,” for instance, and the jazz standard “When the Saints Go Marching In”).

The predominantly white audience reacted most enthusiastically, however, to such classics as “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “Didn’t It Rain” and an enlarged version of “The Lord’s Prayer” — even when she only offered fragments.

Scott adroitly interwove and balanced background information and songs so well the blending was seamless. And, as her own director, she efficiently utilized projections of black street scenes and political personalities.

Her multiple costume changes in full view of the audience were skillfully accomplished, too — so well, in fact, they didn’t in the least distract from her patter.

She also had the good judgment to employ Tammy Hall as her pianist-music director — and Shillington in multiple supporting roles (including Tinseltown song-and-dance man Danny Kaye).

Scott ultimately may have lacked Jackson’s range and fervency (anyone might, of course), but she was still a powerhouse.

Well worth a trek to Petaluma.

“Mahalia Jackson: Just As I Am” will play at Cinnabar, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., right off Hwy. 101, Petaluma, through Jan. 24. Tickets: $25-$35. Information: (707) 763-8920 or cinnabartheater.org.

 Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net or www.vitalitypress.com

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