Mighty Mahalia


By Jeanne Theismann


The majesty of her voice could accomplish in one song what a preacher couldn’t do in a two-hour sermon. She was Mahalia Jackson and her legacy is brought to life in Tom Stolz’s Mahalia! A Gospel Musical, a no-souls barred tribute to the legendary singer, now playing at MetroStage.

Born the granddaughter of slaves in New Orleans in 1911, Jackson left for Chicago at the age of 16 with the dream of becoming a nurse. But it was her voice that carried her beyond the barriers of the Jim Crow South to become what many still consider to be the world’s greatest gospel singer of all time.

In Stolz’s musical biography, the focus is on Jackson’s commitment to her faith, her music and her close association with the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A civil rights pioneer in her own right, Jackson sang for those who walked in Montgomery and was the powerful musical preface to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin has built a solid reputation for MetroStage as the place to see superb musical biopics — Alberta Hunter (Cookin’ at the Cookery), Sammy Davis Jr. (Cool Papa’s Party) and Pearl Bailey (Pearl Bailey … By Request) to name a few. But Mahalia!, which garnered awards when it first premiered here in 2004, soars to new heights and raises the roof of the converted lumber warehouse.

The original cast of three — Bernadine Mitchell, S. Renee Clark and William Hubbard — all brilliantly reprise their roles. Mitchell takes on the role of the incomparable Jackson, while Clark and Hubbard each play a number of characters from Jackson’s life.

Clark is commanding as Jackson’s devout Aunt Duke, the woman charged with raising Jackson after her mother’s death when she was just 6 years old. But it is as Jackson’s longtime collaborator and accompanist Mildred Falls where Clark’s talents as both actor and musician are in full force.

An award-winning musical director and conductor, Clark fiercely tackles the challenging and syncopated keyboard rhythms of Jackson’s trademark style while adding her own soulful voice to several musical arrangements.

Hubbard, nominated for a Helen Hayes Award as Outstanding Supporting Actor for his role in the original production, is back and more engaging than ever. He smoothly transitions between several characters but is most commanding in his stirring portrayal of King, his voice resonating throughout the theatre with the strains of “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

But it is the vibrant power of Mitchell’s performance, which earned the coveted Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actress in 2004, that leaves the audience mesmerized. Emulating Jackson’s rich contralto voice, Mitchell crafts a musical journey that compels frequent swaying and handclapping to more than 20 of the gospel legend’s signature songs.

Mitchell brings Jackson’s blues-infused gospel sound to life in songs like Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, Move on Up a Little Higher and Take my Hand, Precious Lord

Her voice remains rich and forceful as she completely inhabits the role of Jackson in a radiant performance of a woman on fire with passion for her faith and her art.

An artist without peer, Jackson liked to say that gospel music was good news in bad times and under the direction of 12-time Helen Hayes Award-winner Thomas W. Jones II, the intersection of race, religion and music elevates Mahalia! beyond mere entertainment.

“There is a great history being told here,” said Hopkins House president Glen Hopkins after seeing the show. “It reintroduces something wonderful to a new generation. People need to see this.”

Mahalia! is not just the story of Jackson’s life but of an era that defined and shaped the civil rights movement. It is an uplifting, exhilarating evening filled with joy and bursting with song. Young and old, black and white — it is a musical that defies description and is a must-see, must-hear, must-experience show for all ages. 

“Live theatre is one of the greatest gifts we can give to a community,” Griffin said after Sunday night’s performance. “And the gift these performers give to the audience each night is priceless.”