'Mahalia' uplifts the spirit; Review: Arena Players' story of the gospel singer warms the soul, despite some unfortunate comic relief; THEATER


Arena Players has opened its season with "Mahalia: A Gospel Musical," based on the life of the late Mahalia Jackson. In the show, the character of Jackson defines gospel music as "good news in bad times." While Arena's low-key, small-scale production moves too slowly, it's filled with enough good news -- in the form of spirituals and gospel songs -- to leave theatergoers feeling uplifted.

Katrina Jones, who alternates in the title role with Charisse Caldwell, has a dignified presence that suits her character. She may not sound exactly like the fabled gospel star, or get the audience stirred up enough to launch into the type of irrepressible rhythmic clapping that often greeted Jackson's fervent singing, but Jones' dulcet voice conveys an affecting sense of wonder.

Scripted by Tom Stolz, the show opens in Jackson's hometown of New Orleans, where we see her singing along with a Bessie Smith recording, to the dismay of her pious aunt. But soon Jackson forsakes secular music, after having a religious vision. Soft-spoken scenes of her talking to God are scattered throughout the rest of the show.

Moving to Chicago with hopes of becoming a nurse, Jackson joins a church and a gospel group. Her rise to stardom begins when she meets gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey, who tells her that she accomplishes in one song what a preacher would spend two hours saying in a sermon.

Dorsey takes her on the gospel circuit, singing in churches and revival tents. When the composer complains that he doesn't recognize his songs when she sings them, she replies, "I have to sing 'em till the Lord comes, and when he comes, I have to hold 'em till He lets go."

As she tours and gains a larger and larger following, Jackson realizes she can use her music as a way to encourage integration. "Gospel was a mighty force for breaking color lines," says the singer.

Jackson became a strong supporter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Much of the second half of the show deals with the civil rights movement, often rehashing history instead of providing further insights into Jackson's character.

All of the supporting roles are played by Cedric Meekins, who is also the show's musical director, and Barbara Hudson. Both display an adequate dramatic range as well as providing keyboard, and sometimes vocal, accompaniment. Meekins' youth group, N-Full Effect, also supplies lovely offstage back-up vocals.

Director Kwame Kenyatta-Bey has unfortunately peppered the show with snippets of corny, politically incorrect comic relief. The worst instances come during Jackson's first European tour, when Meekins, as her blind organist, is physically dragged from tourist site to tourist site by Hudson.

Not only does it seem likely that Jackson would never have put up with this kind of behavior, but it detracts from the reverence Jones brings to such songs as "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and Jackson's trademark, "Move On Up A Little Higher."

Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8: 30 p.m. Fridays, 7: 30 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 17. Tickets are $18. Call 410-728-6500.

A Miss Senior is star

There's a little more gleam in the Timonium Dinner Theatre's weekday matinee, "The Golden Girls Follies: Rhapsody in Blues." Cast member and tap choreographer Audrey Varlas, 62, received third place in the 1999 Miss Senior America Pageant in Las Vegas on Sept. 23.

Reached before a recent performance in Timonium, Varlas described the pageant, in which she competed against contestants from 31 other states, as "really, really exciting, a very unique experience." She said she sang "Le Jazz Hot" from "Victor/Victoria," followed by a bit of jazz tap dancing, in the talent competition.

She was also asked to recite her philosophy of life, which goes as follows: "I consider time an investment. Spending it on people and activities that keep me healthy, happy and alert has been profitable. There's an adage that I find profound: If you always do what you always did, you'll get what you always got. Take the time to explore your creativity and to grow. I try to set approachable goals and make my dreams come true."

Varlas began performing at age 3 1/2 in a sister act that played various Baltimore theaters, including the Hippodrome.

She has been teaching dance for 40 years, the last 21 at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. She also directs two senior performing companies, Footnotes and the Cabaret Players.

"The Golden Girls Follies" continues at the Timonium Dinner Theatre, 9603 Deereco Road, through Oct. 14. It will be followed, beginning Oct. 21, with "Solid Gold: Sophisticated Swing to Rock 'n' Roll." Both shows are performed selected weekdays at 1 p.m. (doors open at 11 a.m.). Tickets are $21. Call 410-560-1113 for a complete schedule.

Two workshops offered

Theater workshops are being offered in Baltimore City and Harford County.

In Baltimore, director Barry Feinstein will teach an acting and directing workshop at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., from 7: 30 p.m.-10: 30 p.m. Wednesdays, Oct. 13-Nov. 17. Tuition is $50. To enroll, call Mandy Neal, 410-539-0985.

The Hillside Players Community Theater in Harford County is offering a theater workshop conducted by Ralph Denton for students, age 16 through adult. Sessions will be held at the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church, 717 Wheeler School Road, from 7: 30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, for three months beginning Oct. 26. The fee is $10. Call 717-456-7557 or 410-452-8774.

Volunteers sought

The Baltimore-based drama and movement therapy group, the Magical Experiences Arts Company, which works with multiply disabled and emotionally disturbed children and adolescents, is looking for volunteers to work on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Experience is not necessary. Training will be provided. Call 410-358-9293.

Pub Date: 10/04/99

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