Friday, November 22, 2019

"Shout Sister Shout" - Great 'Jukebox' Musical or more?

A moment from Shout Sister Shout (Bronwen Houck)
Shout Sister Shout
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through December 22, 2019

Did you know that Down By the Riverside was written by Sister Rosetta Tharpe? Did you know she was a prolific song writer of significant gospel songs, aside from being a virtuoso guitar player who can be credited with creating “rock and roll” and who influenced Elvis, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and more? I certainly didn’t know this.

In a rousing introduction to Rosie-etta at Seattle Repertory Theatre, you can learn more about this extraordinary woman and her life’s journey. The cast is stellar. Many are new to the Seattle stage and have been drawn in as if they are getting ready to charge back into New York City and take it by storm. Maybe that’s the plan for this play-with-music, Shout Sister Shout, by playwright Cheryl L. West, with support from her director Randy Johnson.
What you’ll experience is a pretty wall-to-wall singing event with a few interruptions for bits of life story. With the talented Carrie Compere as SRT belting her pipes out and an ensemble of Alexis Tidwell, Nehemiah Hooks, Joseph Anthony Byrd (doing a mean Cab Calloway), Porcha Shaw, Allison Semmes (portraying Marie Knight), Chaz Rose (showing up as Dizzie Gillespie for a bit), Timothy Ware, Christin Byrdsong (as Little Richard), Jason Kappus, Lawrence Clayton, and Carol Dennis (as SRT’s mother, Katie Bell Nubin), it’s a rip-roaring evening.

There’s a gorgeous set (by GW Skip Mercier) of a wall of white guitar shapes (that opens and closes at the back) and a frame of stage columns with regularly spaced bars that light up all different kinds of colors during the evening. There are some beautiful concert costumes by Emilio Sosa. Complex lighting schemes are contributed by Robert Wierzel and sound is made crisp by Joanna Lynne Staub.

Every once in a while, some singers bust out some choreography with the help of William Carlos Angulo, some of which can’t help but make you smile or laugh at the exuberance. A tiny on-stage band (behind the wall of guitars) is led by music director talent, Sheilah V. Walker.

There is no doubt that you can be engulfed by the power of the music and the singing. Even as some of the story is of sad experiences SRT went through, including an abusive first husband, and the need to hide what was clearly a lesbian love of her life period with Marie Knight, the thrust is mostly about recognizing her as an undeniable musical talent.

However, the story, starting from her late teens to her death, is very episodic and cursory. We learn the basic details, but there is more information on Wikipedia than you get from the script. In addition, you have to read the credits list in the program to learn that eight of the songs they play, including Down By the Riverside, are written by SRT.

There’s no sense of how she sat to write the songs or where in her soul she drew them from. While she’s portrayed as a clearly great guitar player, the only creative moments are her playing and singing.

If the sparsity of the story doesn’t bother you and you love to wallow in gospel music and rock-and-roll, then by all means, get yourself over to Seattle Rep for a great time. There’s nothing “wrong” with the category of musicals known as “jukebox” musicals where most of the reason you’re there is for the list of songs. In this instance, the show does seem to want to promise more, and as yet, it doesn’t quite deliver.

For more information, go to or call 206-443-2222. 

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