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Hallelujah, Baby!

"Momma" (Ann Duquesnay, left) and "Georgina" (Suzzanne Douglas) reveal their true emotions. Photo courtesy Arena Stage.

Say Hallelujah!

By Carol Chastang Theater Critic

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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 her vacillating.

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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