Music, God, inner strength, and squirrel-talk are all part of Cleveland Play House’s “Marie and Rosetta,” now playing the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square through February 11, 2018. Written by George Brant and directed by Neil Pepe, this show is a treat for the ears and the soul.
“Marie and Rosetta” chronicles the journey of the “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe (played by Miche Braden), and her time with her musical protégé Marie Knight (played by Chaz Hodges).
The year is 1946 in Mississippi, and we’re introduced to two ladies as they prepare for a concert in (of all places) a funeral parlor. Rosetta, who’s just met Marie the previous night, has proudly “stolen” Marie away from “Saint Mihalia” to make the 23-year-old her musical partner.
This strange location is where they begin – in an era where a gospel superstar like Rosetta Tharpe sells incredible amounts of records, and plays to thousands of fans every night, she and her band also have to deal with Jim Crow mistreatments like not being allowed to stay in a real hotel while touring the South.
But as Marie panics about the unnerving rehearsal/sleeping space, Rosetta has some concerns about the “vibrator” in Marie’s voice, and the need for Marie to “swing” up her piano playing style. Luckily, Marie also knows how to put the perfect bit of blush on Rosetta’s face, so they start off on the right foot.
The women are as different personally as they are vocally complimentary. Rosetta’s experience versus Marie’s youngness is played off right away. Rosetta’s grit and soul contrasted with Marie’s straight-laced church tone are a playful push and pull in the beginning. Rosetta’s broader view of religion as opposed to Marie’s black and white Bible interpretation pit the two bright talents against each other in strange and stunning ways.
With all of Marie’s concern about Rosetta’s use of too much “swing” on church songs, Rosetta states, “God don’t want the Devil to have all the good music, does he?!”
As they learn about each other, we learn about the journey of these amazing musicians as humans. These ladies sing their way through love, loss, triumph, and spirituality. As they go through the story, it’s clear that maybe both of them need forgiving “7×70” times per day. They become dependent on one another, and like family to each other.
Braden and Hodges are true class acts. Powerful, poised and pitch-perfect: their voices are beautifully blended and wrapped in the warmth of a Sunday morning service.
With the backing power of pianist Katreese Barnes and guitarist KJ Denhert, the 1-hour and 40-minute show (no intermission) covers a concert of superbly-performed songs including “Sit Down,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “O Lord, Search My Heart,” “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa,” and “Peace in the Valley.”
Director Neil Pepe weaves a wonderful back-and-forth with these women and their hearty dialogue. The light moments are joyful, and the serious moments hit true to the core. The personalities and vocal stylings of the characters are like a lovely yin and yang to each other. For a two-person show, both actresses hold up their parts with grace, spirit and a whole lot of harmoniously paired individual flair.
For a story about two people’s career together, “Marie and Rosetta” is entertaining and interesting. There are moments of levity and of seriousness, and it brings a bit of church to the theater without getting too preachy.
The Design Team includes Seth Farber (Music Director/Music Supervisor), Riccardo Hernández (Scenic Designer), Dede Ayite (Costume Designer), Christopher Akerlind (Lighting Designer), Steve Kennedy (Sound Designer), and Cookie Jordan (Wig Design).
“Marie and Rosetta” plays the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square now through February 11, 2018. Tickets range in price from $25-$110 each, $15 rush tickets for currently enrolled students under age 25 with valid student ID, and Young Professional discounts available with YP-CPH Membership. To order single tickets please call 216-241-6000 or visit clevelandplayhouse.com. Groups of 10+save up to 50% off single ticket prices; call 216-400-7027.