"Momma" (Ann Duquesnay, left) and "Georgina" (Suzzanne Douglas) reveal
their true emotions. Photo courtesy Arena Stage.
By Carol Chastang
SeeingBlack.com Theater Critic
about "Hallelujah, Baby" and Black theater! Click here.
If you're a hard-core fan of the American Theater, "Hallelujah,
Baby!" at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. is a must see
to experience first hand the work of living legend Arthur Laurents.
He wrote the original book for "Hallelujah, Baby!" first
produced on Broadway in 1967, and revised the musical for the Arena
Stage. Best known as the author of the book for the musicals "West
Side Story" and "Gypsy" (and the writer of "The
Way We Were," and "The Turning Point" which both
became successful films), Laurents (now 86) also produced the "Hallelujah,
Baby!" revival. While the original production ran for less
than a year, it netted Tony Awards in 1968 for best musical, and
a Best Actress in a Musical Comedy award for a 25-year-old Leslie
Uggams, who starred as "Georgina."
"Hallelujah, Baby!" chronicles the rocky climb to
stardom of the talented, beautiful and ambitious Georgina, as she
sings and dances her way through four decades in the first half
of the 20th Century. Throughout the musical, Georgina, given life
in this production by Suzzanne Douglass' energy and sparkling
presence, battles her negative yet opportunistic mother (the amazing
Ann Duquesnay), the prevalent racism that threatens to crush her
spirit at every turn, and two lovers ( Curtiss I'Cook as
Clem and Stephen Zinnato as Harvey) who, while enthralled with
Georgina, also want her to just get off the fence and make a choice.
Matters are complicated by the fact that her association with Harvey,
who is white, provides opportunities for her that Clem—who
is a black train porter—can't match.
Laurents' update is apparent in a funny segment that
takes us to Georgina's professional life in the 1930s. She's
one of three witches singing (one of them a male in drag) "Double
Double," in a depression-era Federal Theater project production
of "Macbeth." This is the "Rasta" Macbeth,
where the witches wear ill-fitting dreadlock wigs, singing over
a boiling caldron about "the ting dere…he meetin' with
MacBeeth." The play is quickly shut down because of accusations
of the cast's "subversive activities."
With each professional disappointment, Georgina always lands on
her feet. Yet the most compelling aspect of the musical is how
she fumbles her love life. At the beginning of the second act,
Georgina, Clem and Harvey engage in a musical ménage-a-trios
with "Talking to Yourself." The music (by the legendary
writing team of composer Jule Styne and lyricists Betty Comden
and Adolph Green) is beautiful, and their three voices cascade
into a stream of longing, loneliness and loss. Stephen Zinnato's
Harvey has a great voice and is an attractive character, yet it
is Clem who undergoes an interesting transformation from the train
porter to the Army captain, and ultimately to the confident civil
rights activist. Clem grows up, stands up straight, becomes quite
handsome and then threatens Georgina when he has had enough of
Throughout the play, Ann Duquesnay as Momma steals every scene.
At one point, when Georgina has achieved success but still finds
herself at odds with her equally strong-willed mother, Duquesnay
breaks into "I Don't Know Where She Got It." The
actress struts and sings—she's sexy and she knows
it, and takes over the stage, runs the show while Georgina watches.
It's Momma's time to shine, and at that point it
seems that maybe Momma should have been the one to enjoy the
successful stage career.
Ann Duquesnay (who won a Tony Award for "Bring in Da Noise,
Bring in Da Funk") is another reason to see "Hallelujah,
Baby!" She reminds one of Etta James—all sass and
authority and humor, and with "I Don't Know where
She Got It," she brought the audience to their feet.
"Hallelujah, Baby!" first opened on Broadway during
the height of the Civil Rights era. Arthur Laurents' vision—a
musical chronicle of the African American struggle for equality
during the 20th Century—probably resonated deeply with the
audiences at the time. However, while the fight continues, the "Hallelujah,
Baby!" story seems dated in places. But the tug-of-war between
lovers, and the power struggle with Momma is timeless—and
these are the stories that keep "Hallelujah, Baby!" afloat.
"Hallelujah, Baby!" runs through February 13 at
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, D.C. (202) 488-3300.
—January 7, 2005
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