Even talented Tony winners LaChanze and Chuck Cooper and Tony nominee Norm Lewis take a back seat to the stunning choreography and choral work in the Encores! production of the 1940 Vernon Duke/John Latouche musical Cabin In The Sky at New York City Center.
Who, for instance, could have predicted that a performance of the traditional spiritual “Dry Bones” (you know it: Toe bone connected to the foot bone/foot bone connected to the heel bone) would be the showstopper over the enduring standard “Taking A Chance On Love?” But it most certainly is, thanks to Linda Twine’s glorious vocal arrangement, Camille A. Brown’s choreography, and a cast that pulls it all together with such precision, you’d think they’d had a year to rehearse instead of the 10 days that is typical of an Encores! presentation.
Cabin In The Sky, with its all-African American cast, was never a big hit. It had a decent run of 156 performances on Broadway in 1940/41, with direction and choreography by George Balanchine and featuring Ethel Waters as its star. Two years later, it was made into a film with Ms. Waters reprising her central role. (The movie co-starred Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson and Lena Horne).
The show is a parable about Good versus Evil, a struggle between God and Satan for the soul of Little Joe, a weak-willed man for whom the temptations of gambling, drink, and womanizing are too alluring for him to ignore. When Joe is killed in a fight, and just as Satan’s minions are about to haul his soul to hell, the heart-rending prayers of his loving and godly wife Petunia lead to a heavenly reprieve. In order to win his way through the Pearly Gates, Joe must redeem himself within six months, though he will have no knowledge of the intervention or the conditions. Throughout the show, Satan’s team and the Lord’s team coach from the sidelines.
The Encores! production stars LaChanze (Tony winner for her role as Celie in the original Broadway production of The Color Purple) as Petunia; Michael Potts (The Book of Mormon on Broadway) as Little Joe; and Carly Hughes (replacement Leading Player in the hit revival of Pippin) as the sultry temptress Georgia Brown, Lena Horne’s role in the movie. Chuck Cooper is Satan’s son, charged with capturing Little Joe’s soul, and Norm Lewis is The Lord’s General. Cooper and Lewis are surrounded by their respective supporters; the Devil’s gang are all in red, and the Lord’s cheerleaders are in blue. Karen Perry’s costumes and Ken Billington’s lighting design help to keep each side well defined, even as they move about the stage.
The lightweight banter (“the asbestos chariot is waiting,” Cooper’s character razzes the dying Little Joe), Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s snappy directing, and the dancing and singing by a very talented company elevate what could very well have been a clunky production of a show that eschews subtlety in its simple plot. The score, orchestrated for the production by the great Jonathan Tunick from an extant piano version, contains a mix of numbers – some forgettable, some that feel oddly shoe-horned into the show, and some that are real gems. One of the latter is the well-known “Taking A Chance On Love,” which LaChanze belts out at full throttle (though her voice was a little raggy at the performance I attended). She also does a fine job with “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe,” and she sizzles with a song called “Savannah” in a scene in which Petunia – disgusted with what she believes to be Joe’s backsliding – gets back at him by vamping it up at a nightclub. Carly Hughes matches LaChanza sizzle for sizzle with her performance of “Honey in the Honeycomb.”
The excellent on-stage orchestra, a hallmark of every Encores! production, performs masterfully under the highly competent hand of music director Rob Berman, who also contributed to the vocal arrangements. But truly, it is the dancing and the singing by the ensemble that bring the gleam to this old musical, and it is there where the creative team has done its strongest work. Camille A. Brown, the choreographer, brings out a graceful strength in the dancers, reminiscent of her work with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And while “Dry Bones” is the stunner of the evening, the chorus does a majestic job of performing another spiritual, “Wade In The Water,” and provides first-rate harmonies on Vernon Duke's swing-inspired songs.
Other than renting the movie, it is unlikely you will see another staged production of Cabin In The Sky any time in near future, so catch it while you can. The run ends Sunday night.
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