Hats off to crowd-pleasing but formulaic 'Crowns'
It's commonly known that it's hard to get people into the theater in July, so the larger Chicago companies usually respond by filling out their final shows of the season with fringe or experimental productions, or by throwing subscribers (and newbies) a bone with a popular favorite.
The Goodman Theatre takes the latter tack with "Crowns," a new revival (pun definitely intended) of a decade-old gospel musical by Regina Taylor, who returns to direct as well. It's an undeniable crowd pleaser, and it has its moments, but it has no real drama to speak of, and as a morality play it's pretty much aimed at the 10th-grade level, which perhaps has helped make it the most produced new musical of the last 10 years.
Not that the revival isn't timely. The opening is set in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, where the brother of Marketta P. Wilder's Yolanda has just been shot and killed, leaving nothing behind but a red baseball cap that occupies the stage at the opening. Chicago has suffered a rash of shootings this year, especially in black neighborhoods, and it resonates in the here and now. Yolanda is immediately shipped off to Darlington, S.C., and placed under the care of Mother Shaw, who, along with her handful of closest friends, is as devoted to her hundreds of hats as she is to her religion.
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; through Aug. 12
Parking: Pay garages and limited street parking
Rating: All audiences
The two go hand in hand — or rather hat on head — and Yolanda is befuddled to make sense of the dynamic, especially in the face of her own grief.
There are, of course, show stoppers such as "Hat Queen Rules," including the admonishment, "Do the hat-queen tilt/Or someone might get kilt." For anyone who has ever seen a couple of Easter-bonneted churchgoers attempt to embrace and exchange air kisses, it's immediately recognizable, and that's one of the joys of the show — its finely observed moments of Bible-thumping bliss.
David Jennings serves as the male butt of the jokes in multiple roles, nowhere more than when he's playing one of the women's husbands and points out, "You got too many hats. You only got one head."
Yet that's really just about all there is to it. Yolanda resists these church homilies, in the face of her brother's death, until they finally just can't help but win her over.
Most of the audience will likely feel the same. Others will be humming Azealia Banks's new summer stomper "212" to keep themselves awake.
The play opens with African drums immediately followed by Yolanda's hip-hop rapping and dancing, but while the gospel music that follows might be pleasing, it never really connects the dots between the two.
The Goodman production is saved, however, by Felicia P. Fields as Mother Shaw. It's a big role — in every way — and she occupies it fully, with a voice that almost rivals a Mavis Staples (emphasis on the almost). Even when she gets to the inevitable rapping-granny moment — by now a cliché — she makes it vibrant and alive if not exactly fresh.
Like gospel music itself, "Crowns" is engaging even at its most formulaic, and if you go definitely try to catch one of the performances in which gospel singers serenade the audience in the lobby beforehand. The message too is affirming: "We are queens. Our crowns have been bought and paid for. We just have to wear them." Yet, even in that, this July theatrical production is really just preaching to the choir.
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