Rule Number One of Atlanta musical theater: the addition of Chandra Currelley to any production automatically elevates it to “must see” status. She is one of the most reliably charismatic singers and performers around, and she’s the star of the new “Shakin’ the Rafters,” being staged by Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company. But, luckily, Currelley is just one of the highlights of director David H. Bell’s world-premiere production.
Running through August 4 at the 14th Street Playhouse, “Rafters” follows the four Davis sisters, who have spent most of their lives in a small Georgia town in the shadow of their mother, a gifted singer (“She could have been the new Mahalia,” a character says) who wasn’t generous to those close to her. After her death, the four siblings are left to tend to matters themselves and forge their own singing careers. Currelley plays Della Mae, the oldest and angriest. Lila (Latrice Pace) is levelheaded and interested more in serving God with their music than in making money. Willa (Adrienne Reynolds) is somewhat developmentally disabled, an adult one moment and almost childlike the next. The youngest is Neesy (D. Woods), who doesn’t have the same devotion to staying together as the others.
As the sisters travel around the South circa 1958, they deal with obstacles such as racism, lack of money and sisterly competition. As an act, they quickly find that they don’t have the marquee value of their mother. On their way to Atlanta, they hook up with Milton (LaParee Young), a former colleague of their mother’s who hires them, and plan to make their way to an upcoming Baptist convention in Chicago. Donny (Jevares C. Myrick), a colleague of Milton’s and a member of the choir, focuses on Neesy.
Bell, a former associate at the Alliance Theatre, has returned to town for this production, which he wrote, specifically for Currelley, Reynolds and Pace. It’s directed and choreographed quite efficiently, but storytelling isn’t its strong suit. It doesn’t have much in the way of conflict. For all its talk about the Jim Crow South, there isn’t much onstage threat to the sisters. At times, “Rafters” can feel a little monotonous, with scenes of the sisters forging ahead from city to city followed immediately by a gossip number. A last-minute revelation about two of the women seems forced and abrupt.
While Young and Myrick are nicely suited to the material, the male characters simply don’t have the dimensions of the sisters.
What propels “Shakin’ the Rafters” is the music and the women. Robert Deason has written a terrific score, mixing up half a dozen spirited gospel numbers with some character-driven ballads. Pace delivers a gorgeous rendition of “Between Trains,” detailing life on the road going from one city to the next, and later teams up with Reynolds on a poignant “Trust in Him.” Currelley’s impassioned “Passed Over” conveys her character’s anger at the sisters’ situation.
Fortunately, the four actresses all create distinct characters and work — and sing — like clockwork with one another. Each brings her distinct shading to her role. Woods’ young Neesy maintains a fine line between loyalty and ambition, while Pace acts almost as peacemaker and buffer as the four determine how to move forward.
Currelley is at her peak here. Few can match her vocal range and onstage presence, and she makes Della Mae a conflicted woman. The character has a wonderfully comic, drunken moment where she reveals to one of her sisters exactly what she has done the previous evening.
Yet as confident and capable as Currelley is, Reynolds almost steals the show. Reynolds, who won a local Suzi Award for her role as Bessie Smith in Bell’s “Gut Bucket Blues” a few years back, is that rare performer who is equally adept at acting and singing. Her comedic timing, too, couldn’t be sharper — Willa’s reaction to taking a swig of “white people’s water” from a fountain is priceless. It’s an award-worthy performance.
“Gut Bucket Blues” also had its world premiere in Atlanta, also by True Colors. It was a wonderful production that never really gained traction elsewhere around the country. Let’s hope “Shakin’ the Rafters” doesn’t stall too. It isn’t perfect, but it has such dynamic women, energy and toe-tapping music that its shortcomings seem minor.