Letter From Seattle: Holiday Edition

Seattle stages offer a variety of Christmas treats, but the big gifts are Broadway-aspiring musicals such as "Shout Sister Shout!"

Seattle has a thing about holiday shows. It extends far beyond the ubiquitous, pseudo-Victorian productions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that ritually appear in playhouses across the U.S. each December. In the Emerald City theaters also stuff the proverbial stocking with musicals, dark and light comedies, mysteries, improv shows, even live radio dramas in sync with the season.

Religious diversity be damned: Christmas-themed productions clearly sell in these parts, and the calendar is again crowded with them. But for anyone visiting Seattle between now and New Year’s Eve, there are alternatives in an array of non-tinseled stage options.

Carrie Campere stars as rock ‘n’ roll progenitor Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Shout Sister Shout! at Seattle Rep. Photo: Bronwen Houck.

For music fans high on the list should be Shout Sister Shout!, a crowd-pleasing and sonically edifying bio-musical based on the life of the late Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s a rare homage to an artist without the mainstream fandom of, say, Tina Turner, Cher, The Temptations, Carole King — all subjects of recently minted Broadway musicals. Arguably, though, Tharpe had greater impact on popular American music than any of them.

As stressed in Seattle playwright Cheryl West’s script (a scaffolding of serviceable hokum and smart sass), Tharpe really deserves her recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designation. The first prominent gospel artist to strap on an electric guitar and rock out to rousing worship tunes such as “Didn’t It Rain”  and “Up Above My Head,” and a direct influence on such rock “founding fathers” as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and others, Tharpe (who died in 1973) was a consecrated force of nature onstage.  An inventive instrumentalist wielding a hefty Gibson L-5, she also was a solid songwriter and a spine-tingling vocalist. And in the 1940s she scored one of the first crossover gospel hits to climb the R&B charts (her prescient, much-covered “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day”).

The challenge for any bio-musical is to make the subject’s life as dramatic and compelling as their music.  That’s touch and go in West’s script, heavily revised from the show’s 2017 premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse. In the current production at Seattle Rep, there’s too soapy  an emphasis on the naïve young Rosetta’s failed marriage to a nasty, chauvinistic minister. Much more intriguing directions — her close bond with a formidable evangelist mother, and the religious/aesthetic tensions within the African American gospel music milieu itself — are left under-examined.

Like many musicians, Tharpe was a lot better at creating music than talking about it.   (Few interviews with her exist, but there’s a good biography by Gayle Wald the show draws on, also titled Shout Sister Shout.) 

Christin Byrdsong and Carrie Compere in Shout Sister Shout! at Seattle Rep. Photo: Bronwen Houck.

What is heavenly here is the bountiful, soul-soaring score, with 22 classic songs including numerous Tharpe originals. These are belted out by the excellent Carrie Campere as Rosetta, and the tremendous Carol Dennis, whose powerhouse voice graces the roles of Rosetta’s mother Katie and, briefly, Rosetta’s queen-bee rival Mahalia Jackson. (Fun fact: Dennis is a former wife of and backup singer for Bob Dylan.) Completing the diva triumvirate is Allison Semmes as Marie Knight, Rosetta’s sometime musical partner and lover.

If Shout Sister Shout! does nothing more than make people check out Sister Rosetta’s recordings and YouTube clips, it’s done a real service to an artist who richly deserves her full due.

***

Another new musical, Mrs. Doubtfire, is premiering during the holidays at 5th Avenue Theatre en route to Broadway, where it’s slated to open at the Sondheim Theatre in March 2020. The latest stage spin-off of a hit film, it’s based on the 1993 comedy starring Robin Williams as a divorced schlub who impersonates a dowdy female Scottish nanny in order to spend more time with his children.

This musical version of the cross-dressing farce (a descendent of the vintage drag hit, Charley’s Aunt) has some commercial firepower behind it. Staged by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks, its head producer is Kevin McCollum (In the Heights, Motown the Musical), and brothers Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick (creators of the clever Shakespeare romp, Something Rotten) are concocting the score.

The show stars Rob McClure – an endearing top banana charged with the unenviable task of slipping into Williams’ sensible nanny pumps and marmaladed brogue.

Can Mrs. Doubtfire garner as many kudos as Tootsie — the 2019 Broadway musical based on the 1982 film comedy that also trades on a guy passing as an older woman? Moreover, can it do better at the box office? (Despite a Tony Award for David Yazbek’s clever score, “Tootsie” closes in January after only a nine-month Broadway stand, though a national tour is in the offing.)    

Every Broadway musical is an expensive risk to produce. So while critics don’t get to weigh in until halfway through the show’s run (recently extended through Jan. 4), Seattle audience reaction could be key to helping Mrs. Doubtfire work out the kinks.

***

For something cozier and wackier, ArtsWest Playhouse offers Head Over Heels, the result of an unlikely grafting of Sir Phillip Sidney’s venerable epic poem “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia” with the pop-rock tunes of 1980s new-wave darlings the Go-Go’s. The band’s best-known tune, “We Got the Beat,” opens the show, and yeesh, what an earworm. Named after another Go-Go’s hit, the show debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 before a short Broadway run notable in part for the brouhaha over Ben Brantley’s tepid New York Times review, which a slew of readers branded “transphobic.”

Head Over Heels at ArtsWest Playhouse. Photo: John McLellan

A fractured fairytale loaded with gender-bender twists, the story mish-mashes Sidney’s 16th-century pastoral royal quest with the lusty adventures of a battling king and queen, a pair of lovestruck princesses and an exiled rustic pining for one of the latter.  There’s a glam oracle presiding over the action, and LBGQT erotic tangles that end happily for all concerned.

The effortful silliness of the book (adapted by James Magruder, from Jeff Whitty’s original) wears thin after a while. But the hard-working, full-throated cast members really sell it, especially Louis Hobson, Ann Cornelius, Alex Sturtevant and the knock-out transgender diva Mila Jam as the oracle. Plus there’s big help from Matthew Wright’s ebullient staging.   And that takes some doing with the  Go-Go’s musical catalogue, which (for the uninitiated) ranges from infectiously boppy earworms to vapidly bland throwaways

***

For those who crave a little Christmas, ACT Theatre once again offers its perfectly charming annual rendition of A Christmas Carol, but there are a few edgier alternatives as well: The Christmas Killings at Corgi Cliffs, a new mystery (with festive eats) at Café Nordo’s nouvelle dinner theater. The Hard Nut, the irreverent Mark Morris Dance Group take on The Nutcracker (on tour at the Paramount Theatre). 

Or, for a real change of pace, there’s the spoofy Yule romp, A Very Die Hard Christmas at Seattle Public Theater.  To quote Bruce Willis, star of the blockbuster action flick that inspired this irreverent, bloody bauble by the comedy troupe The Habit, “Welcome to the party pal!”

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