Mahalia, A Gospel Musical

by Debbie Minter Jackson

January 28, 2010


Mahalia, A Gospel Musical is a tribute to the late, great gospel warrior who captivated the nation and audiences around the world with her distinctive soulful voice and effervescent delivery.  Her legacy is so profound that her first name alone conjures up enough stirring memories to bring a church crowd to its feet, and might even save a wayward soul or two. Bernadine Mitchell channels Mahalia Jackson when she hits the stage with that incredible voice in the role she was born to play.


Mitchell has rock-solid stage presence, connects with the audience, looks into eyes, shakes hands, winks, nods, and cajoles her way into hearts like she’s in a living room with dear friends.  She obviously knows her way around a gospel lyric and can wrap her remarkable voice around a phrase to belt out a stirring message through song like no other.  Her deep vibrating resonance in the lower register can send chills down spines as much as her trembling glory shout.  Yes, she’s got all that, and then some.


Mitchell, who got a Helen Hayes Award for the role in 2005, shares the stage with two of the finest musicians and performers you’ll see in a long time.  Fellow Hayes Award winner William F. Hubbard is a triple threat as award winning actor/performer, keyboardist, and musical arranger/composer.   He cuts up in the various roles as a young cousin, blind keyboardist, legendary gospel composer Thomas Dorsey, even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr himself.  Along with being music director, S. Renee Clark also plays Mahalia’s formidable Aunt Duke, who raised her, and her devoted accompanist Mildred Falls who traveled with her and functioned more like a sister and dear friend.  Together, Clark and Hubbard keep the place a’rockin’, tickling the ivories, dancing on the organ pedals, even interchanging on their respective instruments with ease.


Usually, the weakest link in this kind of a show is the script, but author Tom Stolz has a playful way of expression, captures poignant moments between songs and generally progresses the story.  The show opens, for example, with the young Mahalia rocking suggestively to Bessie Smith’s “Careless Love Blues.”  Along with provoking Aunt Duke to wave her Bible to rebuke the “devil’s music,” the passage hints at Mahalia’s early musical influences from a New Orleans shanty that indelibly shaped her tone and style.  The script delineates the tension that the singer had with ministers and church folk who were threatened by the wailing “worldliness” of Mahalia’s plaintive vocals and bouncy delivery.  The musical passages also show the fascinating distinctions between the traditional “Negro spirituals” and the early modern gospel sound that Dorsey helped to create, with Mahalia as his ambassador angel.


The special features of the show that distinguish it from the earlier 2004 MetroStage production come from the creative mind of director Tom W. Jones II, who in addition to assuring a steady pace and humorous sketches, added the visual slide projections helping to place the action and anchor the scenes. Most striking are the slides from the Civil Rights struggle depicting angry mob scenes and a recurring one of an actual lynching which depict the life-threatening conditions of the time.  When Mahalia’s pianist balks at the prospect of them traveling south to participate in one of the many marches with Dr. King, you could see why.   Likewise, in their travel overseas on an international tour, when Mahalia graces the “magic circle” in Carnegie Hall, or steps gingerly along the same ancient paths “where the Savior moved his feet,” the visual backdrops of skylines, biblical sites, ancient cities and concert halls, though rudimentary, help place the audience in the mix.


Technological wizardry notwithstanding, a gospel musical would not work without the gospel sound, and Bernadine Mitchell rocks the socks off this show.  Everything else works around her, but that’s like icing on an already dastardly delicious cake.  With her voice crooning out the old melodies, or belting out a holy dancing shout, whether marching to Zion or At the Jordan, or the Battle of Jericho, while blending in perfect harmony with her impeccable ensemble, well, she gets the job done, touches hearts and souls, whips up a frenzy, and leads an adoring crowd to their feet every time.


If you caught Mahalia in 2004, this reprisal is different enough with the slide projections, new songs, and some of the characters’ updated playful antics (vintage T. Jones), that it warrants a return visit– with friends.  If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?  You may as well check it out, see what the fuss is all about, and experience Mitchell’s ”force of nature” performance for yourself.   Besides, you might just get your blessing on the side.


Running Time: 2:20 hours w/ one intermission


Mahalia, A Gospel Musical -  TOP PICK!


Written by Tom Stolz

Directed by Tom W. Jones II
Produced by MetroStage

Mahalia, A Gospel Musical runs thru March 14, 2010.