Born in 1915, Sister Rosetta Tharpe has been called the godmother of rock & roll for her profound influence on a legion of famous vocalists, including Elvis Presley, Tina Turner and Johnny Cash (who noted in his induction speech into the Hall of Fame that she was his favorite singer). Tharpe was performing gospel music with her mother at age 4; she started recording in the '30s, and crossed over into the world of secular music when she appeared at Harlem’s Cotton Club in 1938. PBS made her the subject of a 2013 Great American Masters documentary, and clips showcasing her wonderful talent — she was a doyenne of the electric guitar — are available on YouTube.
Shout, Sister, Shout! is an effort to bring Tharpe’s story to the stage, with co-creators Randy Johnson and Cheryl L. West basing their musical (according to the program) on Gayle Wald’s biography of the same name. The production is a satisfactory spectacle from a technical standpoint, but West’s book is disappointingly disjointed, and lead performer Tracy Nicole Chapman, despite her vocal range, fails to convey the heart and soul of this extraordinary artist.
The lame premise established at the top is that Sister Rosetta has been called on by God to dissuade a young musician named Isaiah (Logan Charles, in hippie-like garb) from taking his own life. This necessitates a review, for his benefit, of her own past struggles, personal and professional. We see her as a young girl attending church with her mom (Yvette Cason), her marriage to the charismatic Reverend Tharpe (Michael A. Shepperd) and her subsequent struggle to escape an oppressive marriage and go out into the wide world, still a proper churchgoing woman, to succeed in the arena of commercial music. The play touches upon the sharp criticism she faced from conservative church groups when she began making inroads into pop, and much later on depicts her relationship with pianist/singer Marie Knight (Angela Teek Hitchman), who was her musical colleague for some years and, the book suggests, a lover as well.
The problem is that so many of these events are presented in a desultory way. There’s not much continuity between the scenes, which have a paper-thin, and-then-this-happened feel to them, making it difficult to forge a connection to the main character. The character of Isaiah also lacks personality. While it may be unfair to expect a musical to have the same character depth and dimension as a non-musical drama, avoiding the pitfalls of trite melodrama and bland dialogue shouldn’t be too much to ask. West has written some fine plays; one wonders what happened here.
Although Shout, Sister, Shout! isn’t the musical one would have hoped for, it has worthy highlights — an expressive rendition of “The Lonesome Road,” beautifully sung by Cason (who in multiple roles delivers a finessed performance throughout), and a spirited Mahalia Jackson song, “I Am Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song,” performed by Cason as Jackson, with Hitchman and Chapman joining in. There’s another terrific number by ensemble member Thomas Hobson as Little Richard. The instrumentals, with musical direction by keyboardist/conductor Rahn Coleman, are well-balanced and on point.
Shout, Sister, Shout!, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; through Aug. 20. pasadenaplayhouse.org/event/shout-sister-shout.