- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

Hankering for some of that old-time religion?Look no further than Old Town Alexandria, where MetroStage, with its soul-stirring rendition of “Mahalia, a Gospel Musical,” bears more of a resemblance to a gospel revival meeting than a theater.

The show charts the life of gospel great Mahalia Jackson from her impoverished beginnings in New Orleans to singing at Carnegie Hall and for Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. “Mahalia” may be modest in plot and production values, but it makes up for it with three shimmering performances and singing that not just raises the roof but sends it whizzing across the Potomac like a wayward Frisbee.

The incomparable Bernardine Mitchell, who was so engaging at Arena Stage last fall with “Crowns,” further confirms her expertise with the cadences and intricacies of gospel music in the role of Mahalia Jackson. Miss Mitchell is miked and, one suspects, aided by sound designers to capture Mahalia’s distinctive, rich contralto. She has Mahalia’s emotional, almost physical, phrasing down pat, as well as her astonishing range.

Miss Mitchell sings with sheer joy and splendor, emphasizing the spiritual side of Mahalia’s music without veering into church-lady parody. What shines through in her portrayal is Mahalia’s dedication to her faith. Although approached by folks from Louis Armstrong to Mitch Miller to record pop and jazz, she never wavered from her mission to spread the gospel through song.

“Mahalia” takes you down a memory lane of gospel classics, ranging from the Negro spirituals “Let Us Go Down to Jordan,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Walk in Jerusalem” and “I’m On My Way” to the blues- and ragtime-influenced compositions of the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey.

Miss Mitchell and co-stars S. Renee Clark and William Hubbard (who recently won a Helen Hayes award for his musical direction of “Crowns”) bring a country-Western swing to “It Don’t Cost Very Much” and the unadorned sweetness of a cappella to “I’m On My Way” and “Let Us Go Down to Jordan.”

In “Yes, God is Real,” Miss Mitchell starts out at a slow and stately pace before cutting loose at the end, an approach she also takes in her meditative delivery of “We Shall Overcome.” The impassioned, feverish style that made Mahalia the queen of gospel is also seen in Miss Mitchell’s struck-by-the-spirit renditions of “Move On Up a Little Higher” (Mahalia’s signature song) and “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Songs.”

Miss Clark attacks her roles with vivacity, whether playing the formidable Aunt Duke or the slightly prissy pianist Mildred Falls. Mr. Hubbard exudes a similar infectious high spirit and swinging musicality, especially in his giddy portrayal of Francis, a blind organist. He is equally convincing in his scenes playing Martin Luther King.

“Mahalia” whips you through the singer’s world, never really touching on her personal life or what made her tick beyond religion. Psychological insight is not why you see this show. You go for the music, the emotional sway and quaking might of gospel.

***

WHAT: “Mahalia, a Gospel Musical” by Tom Stolz

WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through July 11.

TICKETS: $32 to $38

PHONE: 800/494-8497

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