It was inevitable and important that Encores would do Cabin in the Sky, the 1940 musical by Vernon Duke, John Latouche and Lynn Root, which originally starred the great Ethel Waters. And it was just as inevitable that it would be a problem.
Make that several problems.
#1: It’s a “Black” show by an all-White creative team. This is a familiar issue to fans and scholars of period musicals, but it doesn’t make it easier. Few of these works have the monumental significance of Porgy and Bess, which makes us willing to deal with some uncomfortable stereotyping. Certainly, Cabin in the Sky doesn’t – it’s a whimsical piece (representatives of God and the Devil fight over the soul of a flawed but likeable man) that now looks embarrassing.
#2: What Cabin does have is a great score – but the original orchestrations are lost.
#3 Cabin was tailored for the larger-than-life talents (singing, acting, dancing) of the great Ethel Waters, a performer whose distinctive presence has no obvious contemporary equivalent.
But it’s a milestone work – and the Duke/Latouche score alone is reason enough to present Cabin.
So Encores addressed it head-on. They solved problem #2 brilliantly, with new period-evoking orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. They addressed #1 – the book – as they often do, through radical cutting and rewriting (by director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Jack Viertel). I’m sure it’s an improvement, but ultimately this solution is a Catch-22 – there’s really still too much book here to be entertaining – but not enough to make the score feel coherent.
And then there’s the cast. As usual, Encores had some high-wattage marquee names in the larger roles – but here, the ensemble singers and dancers really owned the evening, and several registered as stars-in-the-making. (In particularly, I wish the program had singled out for credit the dazzling female soloist in “Dry Bones.”) In the larger supporting role of sexy Georgia Brown, Carly Hughes brought down the house with “Honey in the Honeycomb.”
Among such exalted company, the principals (#3) made less effect. LaChanze played Petunia (the Waters’ role) – she’s a sympathetic actress, but period style doesn’t come easily, and in several of the best songs – “Taking a Chance on Love,” “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe,” (borrowed from the film score) and “Savannah” – attractive vocal phrases alternated with harsh ones, and pitch was sometimes off. Michael Potts was Little Joe Jackson, the character over whom the forces of Good and Evil duel. If Joe emerges mostly as a puppet, blame the book (or what’s left of it) – Potts gave an appealing if not ultimately memorable performance.
Chuck Cooper and Norm Lewis were the spokesmen for the Devil and God respectively. Cooper (here called “The Head Man,”) gave it comic panache – it’s a one-joke part, but Cooper does it expertly. Lewis’s baritone, one of the glories of today’s musical theater, wasn’t in top shape – register shifts seemed to be carefully negotiated. But even below best form, it’s a gorgeous sound, and Lewis’s handsome presence is always an asset. (If it turns out Our Heavenly Father looks and sounds like Norm Lewis, it will be a happy judgment day for me.)
In what I think is his first directorial outing at Encores, Ruben Santiago-Hudson staged things neatly and kept the action moving – the evening was more static than one hoped, but again I think the book is at fault. As ever, the Encores Orchestra, under Rob Berman’s direction, played superbly.
Like I said – Encores should have done Cabin in the Sky, and they did. If we’re lucky, a recording of the show will follow – preserving the score in Tunick’s orchestrations would be a significant service.