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Mahalia at MetroStage in Alexandria, VA

The cast of Mahalia have what my mother would call “the anointing,” that special gift from God that is one’s talent. And that would be appropriate because Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel and subject of the eponymous musical, had the very same gift: the gift of music and song.

Mahalia tells the inspirational story of Mahalia Jackson from her modest beginnings as a child down South to her exceptionally successful and prosperous career as a gospel singer. Brought up by her grandmother, Mahalia inherits from her a love for God that surpasses her delights for worldly things. Later, prompted by an uncle, Mahalia sets off for Chicago to begin a new life ... as a nurse. When Mahalia joins a church and becomes a member of its choir, however, people notice both Mahalia and her vocal skill.

The musical uses a score of familiar gospel songs and spirituals to accentuate the real-life events leading up to Mahalia’s fame and fortune and lifetime successes. She travels in the U.S. from state to state bringing gospel to believers and nonbelievers alike, and she uses her talents not only to entertain but also to help fuel the Christ-centered arm of the civil rights movement with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mahalia’s success continued long after the civil rights fight, transforming her into the international sensation she is known as today.

What makes Mahalia the musical so satisfying is its energy. Each note of music is like a song unto itself, so eloquently executed that the urge to clap or tap in time is irresistible. What is more is that the full songs themselves speak to a body’s heart and spirit. So much so that audiences have shouted and exclaimed with delight at nearly every turn of a phrase in a song. Mahalia is a powerful show.

Some might argue that the musical’s emphasis on gospel music makes an audience’s reaction more influenced by lyrical persuasion than by the essence of the musical performers’ ability to rouse a crowd. One need only hear the vocal mastery of leading actress Bernardine Mitchell to dispel that myth. She sings with an infectious passion that stirs the senses. And as always William F. Hubbard bring on the talent to match. His versatility really shows through in this production as he takes on the roles of four starkly different characters. Alongside Mitchell and Hubbard is S. Renee Clark on the piano and in all the supporting female roles. Not surprisingly, this award-winning cast has more than a handful of awards and honors among them all.

Of the performance, my companion remarked that “the only difference between Mahaila and going to church is that church doesn’t have an intermission.” That is a very high compliment, especially if the church you go to believes highly in making a joyful noise. And even if it doesn’t, this musical will still make you want to stand up and thank God for such a glorious production.

Mahalia shows MetroStage Theater in Alexandria, VA, now through March 14, 2010.

Photo credit: Chris Mueller



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