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Cabin in the Sky

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Potts and LaChanze
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's here at last: The ultimate battle between Heaven and Hell. In one corner, Lucifer Junior, doing the legwork of his eternally infamous dad. In the other, the Lord's General, fighting the quintessential good fight. What's at stake? Well, to hear those two talk about it, it's the soul of a single man, one "Little Joe" Jackson. But given the fervency of their efforts toward and against each other, you sense that what's truly on the table is the African-American spirit, and a unique culture that, in the pre-Civil Rights era, was particularly dashing, distinct, and dangerous. Alas, in the new City Center Encores! production of the musical that tells this story, Cabin in the Sky, what should be searing is instead a snooze.

There's no single point of failure, no one culprit at whom all the fingers should be pointed. This mounting of the 1940 musical, which has been directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and runs through Sunday, is hardly poorly executed. Fanciful sets (by Anna Louizos) and costumes (Karen Perry) and playful lighting (Ken Billington) capture the fabulistic nature of the evening. The Encores! Orchestra, under the baton of Rob Berman, is, as always, on the ball. The cast counts major musical-theatre heavyweights like LaChanze, Norm Lewis, Chuck Cooper, Michael Potts, and Marva Hicks. And the score, with music by Vernon Duke and lyrics by John Latouche, includes one undeniable, irresistible standard in "Taking a Chance on Love."

But there's a shimmering, shivering "So what?" quality about the proceedings that none of these 24-karat components can overcome. With but glancing exceptions (Show Boat foremost among them), the pre-Oklahoma! years of the first half of the 20th century were rough on musicals that were still waiting to break out of their innocuous shells. The lack of fully integrated storytelling elements often resulted in an onstage collision of incongruities, with the results you'd expect. Whatever else the original Cabin in the Sky was or may have been—an Ethel Waters vehicle, a showcase for George Balanchine (who choreographed, reportedly with some help from cast member and future modern-dance pioneer Katherine Dunham, and directed)—even then it was not a classic (it barely broke 150 performances on Broadway).

This is borne out by how little of the show has survived. Orchestrations for Encores! had to be created anew by Jonathan Tunick, and the series's artistic director, Jack Viertel, admits in a Playbill article that his team could make, at best, educated guesses about where the three ballets were placed. The 1943 film version (in which Waters repeated her stage role) was far from faithful and featured a mostly new song stack. (One of those numbers, "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe," by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, has been awkwardly interpolated here.) And revivals have been rare, in part because of changing racial attitudes, and in part, one suspects, because the show just isn't especially good.

Both could likely be traced to the inflection point of an all-black show being created by all white men. Lynn Root's book, based on his own short story, centers on the concept of Little Joe (Potts) dying, being saved by a prayer from his wife Petunia (LaChanze), and then becoming a betting chip between Lucifer (Cooper) and the (General): After six months, this sin-choked mortal will be fit to go Up rather than Down, or Else. Little Joe's struggle against temptation, in the equally seductive forms of gambling and women (primarily in the person of the "devil woman" Georgia Brown, played by Carly Hughes), is, in essence, real and relatable, even as it's tied to the era's now-uncomfortable tropes. And, by any measure, the romance between him and Petunia is genuinely felt.

The Company
Photo by Joan Marcus

There is, however, a listlessness at work that keeps sparks from igniting into flames, and there are few enough major points to the plot that the whole thing could be traversed in a half-hour, tops, if the songs and dances didn't keep interrupting. Narrative economy was not so much a thing in musicals back then, of course, and, as with nearly all Encores! shows, the book has been "adapted" (by Santiago-Hudson and Viertel), so you're not seeing things exactly as they were intended. Even so, there's little meat or spice to the Lucifer-General back-and-forth, and because you don't have much doubt as to Little Joe's fate, it plays as a superfluous time-killer anyway. Without any oomph to the central conflict, it's tough to rustle up desire to follow it to the end. Nor does it help that Camille A. Brown's dances, though professional, are workmanlike and lacking in energy.

The modern performers, technically proficient but a bit short on house-flooding charisma, can't make up the difference. LaChanze is a gorgeously gifted singer and actress, but could not be more wrong as Petunia: She's all slight and loving, without the overlay of earthy sensuality recorded evidence proves Waters brought to the part. Although Potts avoids caricature as Little Joe, he puts nothing in its place, leaving the man a bland fulcrum around which the action can turn. Cooper and Lewis, two of Broadway's most scintillating baritones, do not let down vocally, but can't escape a certain stiffness that stifles their characters' curiously good-natured rivalry. Only Hughes, a delight as the saucy Georgia, and Hicks, as a smoky church singer, give their one-note roles exactly the strains of emotional harmony they need.

This Cabin in the Sky's biggest pleasures come from the better songs, which receive a smooth (if sometimes too smooth) jazzy feel from Tunick's new charts The slyly suggestive "Taking a Chance on Love" never gets old ("This is a game I'm having a crack at / Needs good luck with me / And so I'm taking a whack at / Any black cat that I see / Boy, I'm booked again / I'm in the swim and hooked again / This goose of mine is cooked again / Taking a chance on love"), and, if handling it lightly, LaChanze sings it admirably. Lucifer's studio-suave "Do What You Wanna Do" is a pungent twist on the notion of normalizing debauchery. And the General's "Not So Bad to Be Good" is a persuasive little lyrical marvel ("The history books all agree / A sinful life takes a heap of tryin' / Just relax, and you'll land in Zion / That's the way it should be").

The biggest discovery, though, isn't a discovery at all. You've heard the traditional "Dry Bones" before, but not as Linda Twine has arranged it this time, emphasizing every note of its from-the-ground-up spiritual for the sizable, soulful ensemble. For them, this song becomes an electric expression of religious and social identity that speaks louder and clearer than everything else combined. Does it matter that "the foot bone connected to the heel bone" and the "neck bone connected to the head bone"? No, but through it we get a tantalizing glimpse of how musicals would soon become connected to a deeper, more worthwhile drama that would change how we all perceive the theatre. From Heaven to Hell and at every stop in between, the rest of Cabin in the Sky just doesn't feel connected at all.

Cabin in the Sky
Through February 14
New York City Center Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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