In theory, there couldn’t have been a more suitable venue for the musical Mahalia than the intimate and historic brick-walled Footlight Players Theatre. A playhouse since the 1940s, the old cotton warehouse might have been the perfect setting for theater-goers to revel in the story of the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, whose pure talent, powerful contralto and mesmerizing charisma made her not only the queen of gospel music, but arguably the single most influential gospel singer in the world.
Lead actress Sheri McClain-Brown (as Mahalia) has a celestial set of pipes and channels Jackson so well that theater-goers may wonder if they haven’t been granted an audience with the legendary singer herself. In fact, some of the melodic lines belted by the actress will simply leave your spine tingling. But sadly, the production was plagued with sound issues from the get-go: buzzing, static, thumping, and other strange sounds severely interfered with the audience’s ability to hear dialogue and to effectively sink into the performance.
When the microphones were behaving, the audience could enjoy a musical that not only gave viewers a look at the life of a woman who recorded 35 albums (mostly with Columbia Records) and turned down singing with Louis Armstrong due to her strong moral and religious compass, but who also lived through some truly compelling moments. From the jazz craze of the early ’30s in Chicago and New York to Brown vs. The Board of Education and the Million Man March — Dr. King himself makes a few appearances in the latter half of the show — Mahalia offers an intriguing dip into American history.
The weakest link, sound bugs aside, can be attributed to playwright Tom Stolz, who did the singer a huge disservice in portraying her life. A grand-daughter of slaves, Mahalia Jackson was a complex woman born with bowed legs in New Orleans, where her Aunt Duke would beat her mercilessly if the house wasn’t cleaned expressly to her liking. Jackson was also married (and divorced) twice, but none of this made it into Stolz’s telling of the story. The dialogue is often clunky, and the story is quite slow moving at times, prompting the older woman seated next to me to ask me, “How long is this?” And then at the end of the show, “Are you going to write about how long it was?” One word of warning: Make sure you visit the bathroom before finding your seat, because the two hours seem overly long, and there ain’t no intermission when it comes to praising Jesus.
Go see it for the talent or if you’re simply looking to delight in a lineup of dynamic gospel tunes. Hopefully, we can chalk up the sound fiasco to opening-night calamity. Unfortunately, abysmal sound quality and contrived writing ruined an otherwise powerful and evocative performance.