For a positive and energizing boost you can hardly do better than the production of CROWNS at Syracuse Stage. The show was written by Regina Taylor, who many of you may remember as Lily on the TV series I'LL FLY AWAY. It was inspired by the book of oral histories and photographs of African-American women resplendent in their Sunday millinery by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry. The story centers around a young Brooklyn girl who is sent to the south to live with her grandmother following the gang-related shooting of her brother. There she learns to accept her heritage and discovers "hattitude". CROWNS is a series of memories, philosophies and anecdotes surrounded by exciting dance and the whole immersed in glorious and rousing music.
Felix E. Cochren has designed a beautiful and workable set. It consists of a platform of wood with arches of scrim, painted with African patterns of parquet-like wood. The musicians are onstage up center behind another patterned scrim. There are four decorative hat stands onstage and two in the pit near steps leading down from the forestage. Jennifer Setlow's lighting enhances the design and the changing focus of the material.
As for Reggie Ray's costumes, wow! The show opens with the cast in African robes and turbans, then there's a wonderfully effective transition to contemporary dresses. I have a small quibble. There are rather odd pink chiffon sleeves attached to Wanda's, (played by the always excellent Terry Burrell), yellow and brown dress, but the transformation of her hat is very clever. I loved the death-defying shoes in the finale and of course all the elaborate hats.
The ensemble cast of six women and one man is splendid. They're all good actors and first-rate singers who are terrific in their solos as well as in lots of powerful harmony. One of my favorite moments is Roz White as Velma in her version of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow". It begins fairly quietly and builds into a real roof-raiser.
Shannon Antalan gives a powerful performance as the young girl, Yolanda. She's a solid actress and her movement is terrific. Playing all the men in the piece, Dennis W. Spears does a fine acting job and is especially good on "Be Made Whole." Chandra Currelley as the wise Mother Shaw, Crystal Fox as the sparkling Jeannette and Valerie Payton as the irrepressible Mabel are all equally strong.
The accompaniment is provided by Musical Director William Hubbard on piano and Otis Gould on percussion. They're a delight to listen to. As for percussion, Mr. Gould even makes good use of the pole he pounds on the floor. Like me the rest of the audience was hooked on the rhythm. Numerous times the usually staid Syracuse Stage audience was caught up in the music and enthusiastically clapped along, sometimes standing.
Patdro Harris directed and choreographed CROWNS and has done a fine job of both. The staging flows smoothly and emphasizes the fact that, to quote Mr. Harris, "In some African cultures there's no word for dance because music and dance . . . are the same thing." This is evident in the wonderful church sequence. He and his cast have brought out the universality of life experiences. Not only is CROWNS great fun, it emphasizes the joy to be found through discovery of the past and community.
On a scale of one to five the Syracuse Stage/Indiana Repertory Theatre/Connecticut Repertory Theatre co-production of CROWNS gets four and a half oranges. For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.