- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

“Hallelujah, Baby!” is no cause for joyful exclamation. Esteemed director Arthur Laurents has overhauled his play, which won the best-musical Tony Award in 1968 and made a star out of Leslie Uggams, in a sputtering co-production between Arena Stage and the George Street Playhouse.

The score, featuring melodies by Jule Styne, is, for the most part, an agreeable throwback to the hipster stylings of the Rat Pack era, with a few romantic ballads thrown in for good measure. The lyrics, by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (with additional lyrics by the late Mr. Green’s daughter, Amanda Green), are brassily upbeat and chipper, which is odd given that the musical is about persistent racism.

It is discomfiting to watch black characters seething with anger and resentment belting out songs that in style and content would fit right into 1950s optimistic, “can-do” musicals such as “Bells Are Ringing” and “Singin’ in the Rain.”

“Hallelujah’s” finale, “When the Weather’s Better,” could have been a bristling commentary on racial prejudice. Instead, it resembles the jaunty, carefree title song from “Singin’ in the Rain” to the point where the cast gambols about, waving bright umbrellas.

Although Mr. Laurents’ turgid book is concerned chiefly with race in America, the performers often resort to broad grinning and shucking and jiving, inexcusably incongruous because the show bears not a trace of irony or satirical edge.

Mighty lapses in logic plague a revised book that takes us on a bumpy musical journey through 100 years of civil rights. The musical follows the story of Georgina (Suzzanne Douglas), a turn-of-the-century black maid from Georgia who refuses to be a scrubwoman and instead strives for a life on the stage. Although Georgina moves through the Roaring ‘20s, the Depression and World War II, through the Eisenhower era and up to the present day, she never ages past 25, “give or take,” she winks.

The forbidding Momma (Ann Duquesnay), boyfriend Clem (Curtiss I’ Cook) and sympathetic white friend Harvey (Stephen Zinnato) journey along with Georgina and never age, either — although they do gain insights and wisdom through the years. What are they, vampires? Their agelessness is never explained or even mentioned, ironically or otherwise, so the whole conceit becomes burdensome and strange.

“Hallelujah’s” rambling, episodic story aggravates its failure. Every time Georgina gets close to making it, the rug gets yanked out from under her. The cumulative effect of this suggests not that she is a victim of prejudice, but perhaps the unluckiest woman in the world.

In the ‘20s, as a Congo Cutie (an ersatz Cotton Club dancer), Georgina is fired before she gets her big break. The Depression hits, and she becomes a bit player in a Works Projects Administration theater, only to have the theater shut down due to communist sympathies. In the ‘40s, as a star on the United Service Organization circuit, she suffers humiliations in the Jim Crow South, and in the ‘60s, she is a singing sensation on par with Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan but faces housing discrimination.

The lowest blow comes in 2004, when Georgina gets invited to the White House, only to have the president ask her to sing an old-fashioned Negro spiritual. For Pete’s sake, would President Bush really be that racially insensitive?

The cast bravely wrestles with the inconsistencies and radical shifts but never appears entirely comfortable onstage. Miss Douglas is an accomplished singer and dancer, but she lacks the megawatt star power to make Georgina credible.

The powerhouse energy here belongs to Miss Duquesnay, whose towering contralto and regal attitude give Momma stature and flair. Her big number, “I Don’t Know Where She Got It,” suggests a less resentful version of “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy,” with Miss Duquesnay demonstrating that she, indeed, has it, and there’s a lot more where that came from.

Mr. Zinnato possesses a lovely voice full of feeling and makes the best of a role that is more figurehead than human, but even he is stymied by a song that requires him to moon over Georgina’s discarded handkerchief.

The look of “Hallelujah” is nothing to shout out in praise about either. The show seems rinky-dink. The amateurish wall projections showing the march of time resemble a bad PowerPoint presentation.

Arena has given us some splendid musicals over the past few seasons, bringing fresh sensibilities to chestnuts such as “Camelot” and “Guys and Dolls.” On the other hand, “Hallelujah, Baby!” takes an awkward step backward in time.

*1/2

WHAT: “Hallelujah, Baby!” book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, additional lyrics by Amanda Green

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 13.

TICKETS: $47 to $66

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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