Anyone looking for an Easter experience is encouraged to take in “Mahalia,” Tom Stolz’ musical biography of Mahalia Jackson, currently running at Old Log Theater. The score celebrates Gospel music and the spirit of resurrection.
The show plays as much like a worship service as it does like a play. Jackson tells her own story, from her beginnings in New Orleans to her move to Chicago, where she became the queen of Gospel music, to her association with Martin Luther King Jr. and her participation in the civil rights movements. Her monologue is broken up with short scenes, prayers, Scripture readings and sermons, and plenty of music.
At its heart, Stolz’ script is an expression of profound faith. His strong beliefs undergird the whole production. His straightforward direction makes a strong statement of religious conviction — his and Jackson’s. He has little need for spectacle, simply focusing on the life of this amazing woman.
He is lucky to have renowned Gospel singer Sandra Robinson Hodges to play Jackson. It’s hard to imagine these songs sung with more authority and commitment. From traditional spirituals to songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” she makes each one a personal statement of belief.
She is not a great actress and there are climactic moments that she has a hard time pulling off. But her joy and charisma fill the stage. And she performs with simplicity, imbuing the character with righteousness and moral rectitude.
Hodges shares the stage with Dianne E’Laine, piano, and Sam Reeves, organ, who also contribute to the vocal soundscape. They play all the other characters as well, Reeves being particularly successful as King.
But at almost 2½ hours, the play is too long. There is little sense of dramatic shape or tension throughout. It’s just an uncomplicated relating of the events of Jackson’s life. After the civil rights era, it loses dramatic momentum altogether and meanders. An enactment of her tour of the Holy Land is interminable: It’s like being forced to watch slides of a friend’s vacation.
But for those so inclined, this is a powerful evocation of Christian faith, and Hodges’ dazzling vocal performance is a thrilling experience in and of itself.
-- William Randall Beard writes regularly about theater.