Northlight's laudable 'Marie and Rosetta' a fitting tribute to gospel greats

“Marie and Rosetta” - ★ ★ ★

Northlight Theatre's praiseworthy “Marie and Rosetta” has much to recommend it.

For starters, there's the music that accompanies George Brant's two-hander, bio-tuner about gospel music pioneer and godmother of rock 'n roll Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her protégé Marie Knight.

Then there's Alexis J. Roston and Bethany Thomas. Their electrifying performances power director E. Faye Butler's production of this modest play-with-music that pairs swinging gospel standards with rhythm and blues in a score that ranges from reverent to riotous.

The time is 1946, when their professional partnership begins. The place is a Mississippi funeral home, which serves as rehearsal room and sleeping quarters for renowned gospel/R&B singer/guitarist Rosetta (Thomas) and wide-eyed newcomer Marie (Roston), a backup singer Rosetta hired away from rival gospel diva Mahalia Jackson.

Bethany Thomas plays Sister Rosetta Tharpe, known as the godmother of rock 'n roll, in "Marie and Rosetta," running through Aug. 6 at Northlight Theatre. It is directed by E. Faye Butler. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Impressed with Marie's “high church” style, Rosetta proposes they form a duo, partly to regain favor from a church community that disapproves of her performing in nightclubs, and partly because she recognizes talent when she hears it.

Hours before their debut, the women rehearse: Marie on piano and Rosetta on the acoustic resonator and the electric guitar. Roston and Thomas deliver soul-stirring vocals, while miming (credibly) the bracing instrumentals, which come courtesy of music director/pianist Morgan E. Stevenson and guitarist Larry Brown.

In between songs, the women share stories of their faith, growing up in the church, teaching themselves music and enduring no-account husbands. Rosetta informs Marie of the rewards a music career affords, the sacrifices it demands and the racism Black performers endure traveling in the South in the era of Jim Crow.

Alexis J. Roston plays budding gospel star Marie Knight in Northlight Theatre's "Marie and Rosetta," a biodrama-with-music directed by E. Faye Butler. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

The play's nominal conflict centers on their different approaches to gospel music, emerging as a sacred vs. secular debate between traditionalist Marie and progressive Rosetta. Fearing for her soul, Marie is reluctant to embrace Rosetta's R&B-infused gospel music, which influenced Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others.

Insisting “God don't want the devil to have all the fun,” Rosetta urges the young woman to “sing to the Lord a new song.”

The songs Roston and Thomas sing are not new. But from the showstopping “Didn't It Rain” and the cheeky “I Want a Tall Skinny Poppa” to the double-entendre “Rock Me” and the exuberant “Strange Things are Happening Every Day,” the joyful noise they make (separately and together) is extraordinary.

Newcomer Marie Knight (Alexis J. Roston), left, prepares for her first concert with gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Bethany Thomas) in Northlight Theatre's production of "Marie and Rosetta," a play with music about the godmother of rock 'n roll, Rosetta Tharpe. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Roston's crystalline mezzo - ideally suited to the hushed “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” - perfectly complements Thomas. A powerful singer whose voice grows more luxurious every year, Thomas' full-throated “This Train” (the show's opening number) sets the tone for everything that follows.

Thomas' Rosetta is a formidable woman possessed of a generous spirit. Regally dressed in glittering silver (the costumes are by McKinley Johnson), she is a star secure enough to share the spotlight. Dressed in pale pink brocade, Roston's Marie is the disciple capable of sharing that spotlight.

Brant's script is serviceable, but the conclusion is unsatisfying thanks to a clumsily executed twist late in the play that follows a perfunctory reference to Rosetta's impact on modern rock. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, she's described on the museum's website as the “first guitar heroine of rock & roll.”

Still, “Marie and Rosetta” is a glorious celebration of groundbreaking artists brought vividly to life by two of Chicago's finest.

Location: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300,

Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 6

Tickets: $30-$89

Running time: About 110 minutes, no intermission

Parking: Free in the adjacent lot

Rating: For teens and older

COVID-19 precautions: Masks encouraged

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