Cabin In The Sky: Encore! Series at City Center
Sheila Kogan, Contributing Writer, February 15th, 2016
The Encore! Series at City Center presents “concert” versions of older or little-known American musicals. The musicals are scaled-down, but although they may not have grand physical sets or expensive special effects, they are much more than singers sitting on chairs. There are clever or artfully simple sets and costumes and musical numbers that may include robust dancing. It’s all designed to indicate the intent of the original. Typically, top-tier performers are willing to commit to the extremely short schedule (some days for a rehearsal period and a run that lasts only a few days). I’m always astonished (and delighted) by the polished, professional performances that are accomplished in the time. Some of the productions have been so popular that they moved to Broadway (like the spare Chicago that’s still running.)
The first presentation of the 2016 season was Cabin in the Sky, a little-performed African-American musical from 1940.
The jazz and gospel-inspired music was written by Vernon Duke with lyrics by John Latouche (some of the songs have become familiar standards, like Taking a Chance on Love and Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe).
The book, originally written by Lynn Root, is a fable, a contest between representatives of heaven and hell (Norm Lewis, Chuck Cooper) for the soul of Little Joe Jackson (Michael Potts). The women in Joe’s life are his religious wife Petunia (LaChanze) and the gold-digger Georgia Brown (Carly Hughes). Frankly, the book is a thin line for hanging on songs and musical numbers, but what wonderful musical numbers!
Rob Berman, the music director, (with Jonathan Tunick, the orchestrator) made the musicians sound like they were part of a huge orchestra of the big-band period. And the singers! Amazing voices of gifted singers, some of whom can simply stand there and sing to wonderful effect, and members of the gospel choir who reach to heaven in harmony or individually. (Wish I had space to list every person in the cast. They were all superlative.)
There is a black-and-white film version of Cabin in the Sky starring Ethel Waters and Lena Horne, but for some reason, none of the dance numbers were included. The original choreography was created by George Balanchine with Katherine Dunham. I would have really wished to see that! But only still photos exist of those dances, so Camille A. Brown created new choreography for this production. The dance numbers — sinuous and modern, with elements of 1940s social dancing — were nothing short of terrific. And the dancers were all lithe, agile and fabulous. Although it’s a shame there is no record of the original choreography, I can’t imagine that I would have enjoyed it more than the dances I saw. (And I feel sad that I may never see these new dances again. Maybe they can be refashioned for another kind of performance somehow.)
Besides editing the script to make it more politically correct for today’s audiences, Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who is known for directing August Wilson’s plays) directed this concert version, briskly moving the action along in the defined space. Sorry that he didn’t have a better book to work with, but I was very entertained by the musical numbers.
Considering the recent conversations in the media about “diversity”, Cabin in the Sky gives these truly talented performers of color the opportunity to show their stuff, and I was thrilled to see them all in this rare theatrical experience.
I’m looking forward to the next installment of the Encore! Series, 1776, a Broadway musical about American history.