Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Hat's Entertainment: Buoyant Musical Numbers Help 'Crowns' Brim With Joyful 'Hattitude' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a musical with story written
and directed by Regina Taylor
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 12

Theoretically, I could easily regard Crowns--a gospel-infused musical based around southern African-American women who take pride in the elegant hats they wear to church on Sunday--as simply a show for which I am not the target audience.

But that's silly.

Although it's certainly legitimate for artistic creations to hew more closely to the inherent tastes and interests of people of a certain gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, etc., etc., a truly enjoyable show--especially if included in a subscription series--should be just that: enjoyable regardless of who's watching it.

And when the stellar cast sang and, more occasionally, danced, I found Crowns to be terrifically enjoyable. Perhaps all the more so because it was different than what I might naturally opt to attend.

Given the standing ovation the show earned on Sunday night at the Goodman, from a crowd slightly more diverse than normal but not nearly as racially mixed as one might hope, it seems I wasn't the only one who enjoyed the relative uniqueness of Crowns (despite the current run being a slightly revised reprise of a 2004 Goodman production).

While the strong musical numbers and terrific costuming--including much magnificent millinery work--served to make Crowns sufficiently engaging and at times sensational over its 100 or so minutes, it was considerably less enjoyable for me when the singing and dancing stopped.

Written and directed by the talented Regina Taylor, who was inspired by a photographic book of the same name, Crowns struggles to make its contemporary narrative as compelling as the musical numbers that introduce and reflect the show's resplendent "hat queens."

Taylor builds her story--supposedly a bit more pronounced than in earlier versions of Crowns, though I can't cite specifics--around a street tough young woman named Yolanda (played by Marketta P. Wilder, in green at right) from Chicago's Englewood neighborhood. As the show opens, Yolanda's brother has been slain, and after rapping about her pain and her proud ties to her home turf, she moves to South Carolina to live with her Grandma, Mother Show (played by the great Chicago actress/singer Felicia Fields).

Along with other women in the community, including one played E. Faye Butler--another dynamic performer I've often enjoyed on local stages--Mother Shaw introduces Yolanda to the soulful life lessons that can accompany the selection, and showcasing, of a lady's luxuriant headwear.

But while Yolanda's tale and evolution would seem to have much gravitas, the narrative feels like simply an excuse to transition from one song to another, whether solo spotlights and ensemble pieces.

Wilder does a nice job embodying Yolanda's transformation, but the dramatic arc is not the reason to see this show. As the character of Velma (warmly played by Jasondra Johnson, below) conveys, it's all about the 'hattitude.'

As well as, of course, the songs--largely traditional and gospel numbers from various composers & lyricists, performed with accompaniment from a 7-piece band--which are plentiful enough for Crowns to be firmly categorized as a musical.

And while it won't rank among the very best musicals I've ever seen, it was certainly a satisfying way to top off a stellar Goodman season (with the exception of the awful Camino Real, but Red, Race and The Iceman Cometh were all excellent or even better).

I won't quite call Crowns a must-see, but especially if you can avail yourself of one of the Goodman's generous discount programs (or HotTix), you'll be hard-pressed not to find find the performances delightful.

Certainly, if I had one, I'd end this review by doffing my hat.

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