Review: Cygnet Theatre’s ‘Marie and Rosetta’ has bursts of roof-raising music


It’s the gospel truth: When the two soul sisters of Cygnet Theatre’s “Marie and Rosetta” join voices, their holy ruckus is enough not just to raise the dead but maybe make them shimmy and shake a little, too.

In fact, George Brant’s play might seem the ideal objective test of that notion — taking place as it does inside a funeral parlor — except that only empty caskets are in evidence rather than any of the actual dearly departed.

Still, in more ways than one this fact-based, music-filled play, which just opened in a fitfully captivating local premiere at Cygnet, is invested in the idea of resurrection.

For one thing, it celebrates the recently revived legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (played here by Noël Simoné Wippler), the mid-20th-century singer-guitarist and gospel great who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just over a year ago for her role as a key pioneer of the rock explosion.

For another, the play centers on Rosetta’s fervent efforts to resuscitate the artistic soul of her own young protegé, Marie Knight (Amaiya Holly), whose devotion to the church’s ideas of female propriety has hamstrung her ability to really feel the music she’s supposed to be performing.

Rosetta urges Marie to embrace her gifts, while Marie worries that Rosetta is putting her soul in peril. There’s a funny scene that has Rosetta trying to physically push Marie’s hips to move to the beat (and it hints at a sensual aspect, too — in real life the pair were thought to be romantic partners).

And after the two get a good groove going on the song “Didn’t It Rain,” Rosetta exclaims: “Jesus is happy, and so am I!”

The setting is the pair’s first rehearsal together after Rosetta has plucked Marie from the chorus of her gospel rival, Mahalia Jackson, whom the good Sister refers to with more than a little exasperation as “St.” Mahalia.

The two are bedding down in funeral homes and playing in warehouses because it’s the Jim Crow Era, and segregation has severely limited these fiercely talented women’s options.

Under the direction of Cygnet associate artistic chief Rob Lutfy, Holly and Wippler work up both sharp conflict and plenty of authentic warmth between the two. What’s particularly remarkable about their performances is that for the most part they actually play their instruments, too — Holly on piano, Wippler on both keys and guitar.

It might owe to the fact so much is demanded of the two actors that, on opening night anyway, there was an occasional air of the tentative. Wippler seems as if she might still be working to fully embrace her character — there was a slight feel of acting a set of characteristics (Rosetta’s audacity and free-spiritedness) rather than a complex character.

But she had moments that really connected, too, and nailed some sweet, bluesy guitar riffs on such songs as “I Looked Down the Line” and “Strange Things,” one of Rosetta’s signature tunes.

As Marie, Holly brings a canny mix of innocence, ambition and pure love for music: There’s a great scene early on where, listening to Rosetta play a boisterous, almost ragtime-y “This Train,” Marie practically levitates from her seat in ecstasy.

She also has a sure feel for the walking bass on piano, and plays with infectious joy on “Tall Skinny Papa.”

The gifted music director Leonard Patton helps the songs shine, and Elizabet Puksto’s set (punctuated by photos of the real-life Rosetta and Marie), Anne E. McMills’ lighting, Chanel A. Mahoney’s costumes and TJ Fucella’s sound design are likewise first-rate.

There’s a bit of a twist to the bittersweet ending — but nothing can keep this potent pair, when they’re at their best, from being bound for glory.

“Marie and Rosetta”

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 16.

Where: Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town.

Tickets: $35-$65 (discounts available).

Phone: (619) 337-1525


Twitter: @jimhebert