This is the second go around for the production, which premiered at Old Log in 1994. Ironically it’s a slice of African American theater, indeed, a page from Black history, running way out in the middle of White suburbia. And well worth the trip.
Local gospel luminary Sandra Robinson Hodges is a natural to play Mahalia Jackson, the music immortal, civil rights activist and cultural icon. For one, her pedigree is impeccable, a founding member of the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir with her brother Robert Robinson — yes, that Robert Robinson — for whom she took over as artistic director in 2008. Her track record is incredible; having performed with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Jermaine Jackson, Prince and fellow Twin Cities stars The Steeles.
Acting is not Robinson’s strong suit, but, who cares. She was contracted to come in with vocals that blow the walls off the place and that is exactly what she delivers. She does an amazing job and perfectly captures Mahalia Jackson’s heart and soul. Importantly, Robinson Hodges does not just get up there and blow hard as her powerhouse pipes allow. She mines the subtleties of Jackson’s style to the point where you actually hear Mahalia’s voice mature over the years. It was in short, a phenomenal performance.
In strong support, Dianne E’Laine and Sam Reeves pickup the acting slack and admirably contribute to the music. The key to the quality of the singing is that they are all thoroughly steeped in the genre. E’Laine’s characterization as Jackson’s personal assistant, Mildred, is priceless, an adorable study in earnest, terminally correct pushing to do well for the great lady. Reeves, in one of his multiple roles, does a pretty good Martin Luther King Jr. Along with Hodges’ sterling reputation, St. Paul-based Dianne E’Laine is a choral director at Pilgrim Baptist Church and works with Arts-Us. Sam Reeves is a longtime co-producer with Robert Robinson. For good measure, he has worked with Vickie Winans, R. Kelly and Jennifer Holiday.
Robinson Hodges, E’Laine and Reeves, make an evening at Mahalia a night you won’t forget. Not for a very long time.
And that’s true despite director and playwright Tom Stoltz’s lack of playwriting skill. Pretty much the same way Jeff Hatcher was asleep at the switch for his yawn-a-thon book on Ella Fitzgerald, an ersatz, “now-class-this-is-what-happened” explanation of the jazz great. It isn’t quite that bad with Mahalia, at least not until you get within about ten minutes of intermission, at which point what little does work about Stoltz’s script — clear characterizations, a fairly decent ear for dialogue — starts to flag as we begin bogging down in morass.
The second act drags and drags, with narration after narration. A principal tenet of scripting is, show don’t tell. Stoltz, like Hatcher, has yet to figure that one out. Fortunately, he’s a talented director. Rather than resort to an odd habit that has caught on at venues like Mixed Blood Theatre, Penumbra Theatre and, sporadically, even Jungle Theatre where artistic director Bain Boehlke has set the bar for area directors, Stoltz refuses to rush his actors when the curtain comes up. Instead of using artifice to interest the audience in the show’s pace, he lets the rhythm, the interaction between characters, and the energy between actors, evolve; from the word go.
Tom Stoltz’s Mahalia runs at Old Log Theater in Excelsior, through May 25. Be sure and get directions.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.