By Lynn Venhaus
At its best, “Crowns” is a jubilant celebration of family, faith and traditions, and the Black Rep’s sharp ensemble radiates joy as they take us to church. It’s a gem of a show, gleaming with polish and pizzazz.
The small cast of seven raises their glorious voices in beautiful harmonies, delivering spirituals, gospel standards, church hymns and ballads, which are woven into a story thread that includes vignettes.
As the youngest Yolanda, Tyler White, opens with hip-hop, to set the scene for her life in Brooklyn and showing her youthful energy and independent spirit. She moves down South, to stay with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Anita Jackson), after a family tragedy. She learns about her history, forges an identity and what it means to have these “church ladies” in her life.
By honoring women who have impacted their lives, we feel the reverence and love for these role models. They are having as much fun on stage as the audience.
With outstanding creative elements, the show pops with color – especially Designer Daryl Harris’ gorgeous costumes and an incredible array of hats that reflect time periods and fashion trends.
The women are decked out in well-tailored Sunday best that reflects their characters. In a dramatic entrance, a rainbow of similar dresses is lowered for the women to change into and tell us about their journey.
Scenic Designer Dunsi Dai’s innovative set includes a large straw hat as the centerpiece. Joe Clapper’s lighting design enhances that symbolic piece.
With considerable flair, director Linda Kennedy focused on what made this 2002 gospel musical by Regina Taylor strike a chord with audiences. It has become the most produced musical in the country.
If Taylor’s name rings a bell, she is an award-winning actress, best known as the housekeeper on “I’ll Fly Away,” NBC’s critically acclaimed drama that ran for two seasons from 1991 to 1993.
She was inspired not only by her role models and the music of their churches, but also a coffee-table book, “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church,” by Craig Marberry and Michael Cunningham.
Musical Director Charles Creath expertly plays keyboards and Matthew Clark handles the percussion, a tight combo at the rear of the stage; they sound terrific. The score, with familiar gospel songs, is at times moving and other times fun.
The movements all have a purpose, too. An experienced Alvin Ailey dancer, choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd’s work is another bright spot, conveying the faith, hope and love of this group.
Eleanor Humphrey as Jeanette, Tyler White as Yolanda and Anita Jackson as Mother Shaw in “Crowns.” Photo by Phillip Hamer.Anita Jackson, with customary power and grace, commands the stage with her vocal prowess and leadership role.
Other likable presences include Leah Stewart as Mabel, Amber Rose as Velma, Maureen L. (Hughes) Williams as Wanda and Eleanor Humphrey as Jeanette. They work together well. Tyler White is a natural as Yolanda.
As the sole male in multiple roles, Myke Andrews’ winning personality is a plus, and he also has a strong voice.
The show is structured with vignettes that are told like at a church service – procession, morning service, wedding, funeral, baptism and recessional. It flows well, engaging us with their stories and songs.
The cast connects the message and history lessons with warmth and good cheer. They make these characters come alive – people you know or wish you knew.
The Black Rep’s production of “Crowns” runs Thursdays through Sundays Sept. 5 through Sept. 23 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. For more information, call (314) 534-3807 or visit www.theblackrep.org.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.