It is hard not to leave Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre’s production of the world premiere Shakin’ the Rafters without a smile or pep in your step. Filled with top-notch vocal talent, a fun gospel tinged score and a bitter-sweet story, the musical will easily become an audience favorite.
Having to live in the shadow of a well-known parent can be difficult. For the sisters in the gospel group the Eva Lee Davis Singers, coming out from behind the shadow after their mother dies and making a name for themselves is a struggle. But, the Davis Sisters partner with an estranged friend of the family and begin to make their way to the pinnacle of success for a gospel group: the Baptist convention in Chicago.
Set in the late 1950s, Shakin’ the Rafters follows the sisters after their mother’s funeral in their goal of making it Chicago. Singing in small church after small church is the only life the ladies know, but when an old friend offers them a chance for a steady paycheck and work in larger cities, the group agrees. They leave the boarding houses, love offerings and church food for hotels, restaurants and a $60-a-week paycheck.
Chandra Currelley holds the show together in a mesmerizing performance as the older sister Della Mae, who only wants to overcome the poverty of her childhood. She sums her motivations when she sings, “Good enough for mama, but not good enough for me,” in “Passed Over.” Every aspect of character and movements on stage show the weariness and subtle hope of the character.
The middle sister, Lila, only wants to honor the family tradition, even though she isn’t fully happy with it. Played by Latrice Pace, the woman is steadfast and strong. Pace’s delivery draws empathy and compliments the others on stage. Her performance of “Between Trains” is undeniably a show stopper.
Adrienne Reynolds, as Willa, showcases her comedic and dramatic talents as well as he incredible voice. While it isn’t clear if the character is developmentally disabled or autistic, she plays the part well and one of her final scenes is played with such emotion that it is hard not to feel sympathy for the character.
D. Woods plays Neecy, the youngest of the group, and she longs to become a solo singer. Her performance is wonderful, and she handles the demanding “Getting Gone” with ease. Rounding out the cast are Jevares C. Myrick and Laparee Young, who both play the male characters in the production. Each gives a solid performance with strong vocals, but if the two characters had more depth, both of them could make the roles truly memorable.
With such wonderful performances, it can be easy to overlook the disjointed story that never quite comes to a crescendo. David H. Bell’s book has many twists and revelations, but the resolution of the events are not entirely satisfying or resolved. The show is heavy on exposition, especially in the first act, causing it to be much longer than it needs to be with much of conflict happening in act two.
Bell’s script looks at several issues around family and touches on issues related to the Jim Crow era. The show is heartfelt and funny, including a humorous scene where Willa dares to get water from a water fountain for whites only. Ultimately, the musical is about family, and that theme gives the musical its heart and allows it to connect with the audience.
The highlight of the show is the tight harmonies and spectacular vocal performances of the cast under the musical direction of composer Robert Deason. The soaring music alone is worth the ticket. From the opening “Walk the Walk,” to the closing “The Gospel Road,” the music becomes its own character, one the audience loves.
Despite its flaws Shakin the Rafters is an entertaining night at the theater. Uplifting, touching and funny, audiences won’t be disappointed. The musical plays at the 14th Street Playhouse through August 4, 2013. For tickets and more information, please visit the theater’s website. The show’s run time is a little over two and half hours with an intermission.
– Kenny Norton