SHOUT, SISTER, SHOUT!
My favorite aspect of Shout Sister Shout, the new musical at the Pasadena Playhouse, is that it made me aware of its subject, music legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I had never even heard of her before, but the minute I got home from opening night, I researched this singer/guitar player. For hours! I even watched tons of videos of her, which I can’t believe are in existence from so long ago! Lucky us.
But seeing the real woman perform in those vids made me realize that no show could ever really do her justice. I know that it’s always difficult for an actor or actress to play a legend because that’s exactly what makes the original a legend to begin with—no one can really copy them! Tracy Nicole Chapman is definitely up to the task, but this watered-down version of Tharpe’s life just didn’t quite get to me.
Though the opening night audience was very enthusiastic, my enjoyment was somewhat less than theirs. Perhaps some of that had to do with the not-cool-enough-for-me conditions in the theatre. Many of you already know that I absolutely adore the Pasadena Playhouse and its storied history. But, because it was built way back in 1925, the air-conditioning in there never seems up to the challenge of summer in the city. And I wilt in the heat. I find it very hard to concentrate when I’m not physically comfortable, so I couldn’t pay as strict attention to this show as I usually do. (And the Empath in me couldn’t get beyond feeling for the cast, who had to be all bundled-up at all times, since the action takes place between 1933 and 1973.)
But let me tell you right up front that everyone on that stage is supremely talented. The singers are all excellent, especially Yvette Cason as Rosetta’s mother, and the musicians are downright wonderful. Mr. X and I were both thrilled that they were onstage, (albeit sort-of in the background,) so that we could catch glimpses of them expertly plying their trade, when the lighting revealed the band to us.
While I’m on the topic of the music, don’t go in expecting to hear familiar tunes. Unless you’re a hardcore Sister Rosetta Tharpe fan. Or eighty-years-old. All but two of the numbers are the old, old, oldies, (like from 1938 old!,) so, I’m sad to say, I didn’t know a one.
But Melissa Manchester, a Playhouse regular, (as reported occasionally in my Celeb Sightings column,) wrote two new songs for this show, so that was interesting. Mr. X was especially impressed with her composition, Somebody’s Got To Know.
He also pointed-out the clever staging, which featured work on multiple levels, along with creative lighting.
But that was about it for our admiration of the show, although I can’t name negatives of the show in specific, because there really are none. It’s just that nothing about it excited me. Or moved me, as I had expected it to. (And I even wore waterproof mascara that night, just in case!) The way I had envisioned Shout Sister Shout had me anticipating that I was going to witness the second coming of the guitar virtuoso. Just as the two women who had played Janis Joplin at this same theatre in the past few years had really channeled her pain and rasp, that’s what I had hoped to see in this show about the earlier female musical icon. But I guess it would be hard to find a soulful singer who can also handle an axe like Rosetta could, or else she’d already be a star herself!!!
So, Shout Sister Shout is the very truncated story of gospel and blues legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who’s often credited as “the godmother of rock-and-roll.” I always find it interesting to learn about someone’s life, so I appreciate this show for that. I’m sure that I’m not alone in my nescience of her, so I’m glad that the Pasadena Playhouse is bringing that knowledge to my fellow theatre-goers.
But the device they use to do so does not appeal to me. It begins with God telling Rosetta that she can’t get into heaven unless she saves a young guy singer from killing himself, which is a weak ploy to begin with, (unless it’s on the level of It’s A Wonderful Life, which this definitely is not,) but the way they have her doing it really takes the cake. She stops him by telling him…about her life! And from the beginning of it! If I were the guy, listening to that would make me want to kill myself even more! (Mr. X always pantomimes doing himself in when I start spinning my personal yarns, so trust me on that one.)
So, while I was watching this show, I thought that it would have been better had it been done like the aforementioned musical, A Night With Janis Joplin. In that one, the Janis character breaks the fourth wall the entire time, and just tells the audience about her life. And then I realized that Shout Sister Shout has the same creator/director as the Janis show! So I was left scratching my head as to why he didn’t copy his own already-successful formula.
I was also confused about why they made the guy whose life she was saving a hippie. That was a bit strange. And a tad disconcerting visually, because the styling on him was awful!!! I kept forgetting that the show began with Rosetta wanting to go to heaven, so maybe he was a hippie because she died in 1973, but it still seemed like an odd choice. (Some other audience members told me they thought the scenario was supposed to be a dream the guy was having, so perhaps the writers need to make clearer what the exact narrative is. If someone comes in late—which shame on them if they do, but still—they’ll be lost.)
And don’t get married to the exact story—from my research, a lot of license has been taken, as it often is with show business renditions of real-life. And the storyline skips right over Rosetta’s other two husbands, which the real woman might have wished she had done herself! But I would have liked to know the whole story.
The stars of the show in this one, for me, are the music itself, and a few clever lines. (Here’s my favorite one: When Rosetta accuses her mother of leaving her father, the mother deadpans, “I didn’t leave. He just didn’t want to come along.” I love that!!!)
So, for the history of it, and to hear some excellent voices, I still suggest you go see Shout Sister Shout. And now that I’ve lowered your expectations quite a bit, I’m sure you’ll really enjoy it. Just dress very naked. And bring a fan!
Shout Sister Shout running on through August 20, 2017
Pasadena Playhouse 39 South El Molino Avenue Pasadena 626-356-7529 www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org