Sweetee – Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York

Jordan Tyson & Jelani Aladdin

Jordan Tyson and Jelani Alladin in Sweetee at the Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York. Picture: Matthew Murphy

Sweetee continues at the Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York until 18 June.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

An exuberant quintet of ragtag youthful music-makers makes a lot of Sweetee, a new musical testing the Off-Broadway waters with a very limited engagement, quite a satisfying theatrical journey. It’s the mid-1930s and they’re on their way through America’s South, heading to New Orleans where they hope their music will result in hats brimming over with coins and bills.

It’s hardly an easy trip. Their mode of transportation ranges from foot to freight trains, and the Southland of that time is rampant with racism. Four of the kids are African-Americans as well as orphans. They’re being shepherded by a white minister, Reverend Dan, whose mission is to find them a haven within a church, a goal which has so far eluded them.

The show itself is being shepherded by a notable Broadway name, director/choreographer Patricia Birch, whose five Tony nominations as a choreographer stretch back to the original Broadway mounting of Grease in 1972.

Her fluid and knowing staging keeps the picaresque story pushing ahead with clarity and spirit, using the intimate venue and her talented cast to good advantage.

The creator of the show is a less prominent figure, Gail Kriegel, but she proves herself to be a formidable multi-tasker, writing the show’s book – imperfect but promising – as well as its music and lyrics.

It’s her tasty score, with its blues inflections mixed with jazzy tidbits and more conventional musical theatre balladry, that most impresses. The rhythms help infuse vivacity into her lyrics, which on occasion deliver such inspirational nuggets as “every cloud wears a rainbow if your heart keeps right”. At other times, it makes fine use of colloquial verbiage.

A small pit band, perched in a far corner of the intimate theatre, accompanies the music being made by the performers on the stage. The lively orchestrations are by music director Doug Katsaros.

Those onstage characters include Thomas (Adante Carter), who plays a tiny pipe whistle and, as the story progresses, acquires a violin; Abraham (Hugh Cha), a clarinetist who later plays a saxophone as well; Hedy (Morgan Siobhan Green), whose instrument is the banjo; and Murphy (Amir Royale), starting with a washboard and moving up to a drum.

The fifth member of the group is the title character, Sweetee, joining the others as they make a stop in her tiny hometown. Sweetee plays the tambourine, but it’s her singing voice that makes her valuable to the group.

She is also an appealing centre for the story in a nuanced performance by Jordan Tyson, a college sophomore making her Off-Broadway debut. Tyson credibly takes the character from a distraught but courageous child – worried about the fate of her prostitute mother and then mourning her death – to young but confident woman.

Jeremiah James brings quiet dash to his portrayal of Reverend Dan, and adds to the show’s breadth of music, delivering some book tunes with leading man bravura.

Another important figure is Cat Jones, embodied with great zest by Jelani Alladin. Cat is a one-man band and a nimble dancer as well. The kids meet up with him during their travels, and he’s the one that inspires them to head to New Orleans. He eventually corrals them into joining his act, and they start on their way to showbiz success with a booking in a New Orleans nightclub.

It’s at this point that Kriegel’s storytelling hits some bumpy patches, with plot developments that threaten to turn really dark and then somehow get glossed over as the show wraps up with an almost perfunctory happy ending.

There is also a problem in the realisation of Sweetee. The audience is told how ‘glorious’ her voice is. Tyson has a lovely voice that easily manoeuvres some jazz scatting as well as brief strains of soprano warbling. But the score never gives her the opportunity to deliver a smashing blockbuster vocal. Or maybe that’s just not part of her performance range. So, you wait in vain for that ‘glorious’ voice to blow you away.

However, Kriegel’s book is telling in its depictions of the era’s bigotry, elements of which still resonate uncomfortably today, and in the joie de vivre of her characters to overcome them.

The set, designed by Tim Mackabee, features a back wall of rough-hewn wooden planks, with bold lettering delivering a grim reminder of the times: state law requires all coloured passengers to ride in the rear of the bus.

The plentiful costumes by Tricia Barsamian, evocative of both the period and some showbiz glitz, are further examples of unstinting production values.

Admirably rounding out the 11-member cast are Katherine Weber as Reverend Dan’s longtime girlfriend who demurs making the trek to New Orleans; Katy Blake as Sweetee’s alcohol-befogged mother and several other more proper Southern ladies as well, and Dave Droxler, who seems to be changing costumes every other minute to portray a wide assortment of Southern gentlemen and not-so-gentle guys.

Sweetie may not yet be a total confection, but she’s a gal worth keeping an eye on.

Ron Cohen

Readers may also be interested in:

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me continues at the Tony Kiser Theatre, New York – Review

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