Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Much music, little story in 'Marie and Rosetta'

Rosetta (Michelle E. Jordan, left) and Marie (Marissa Rudd) harmonize. (Kevin Berne photo)

“Marie and Rosetta,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, is deep in music but rather shallow in story.

George Brant’s play with music is based on the true story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer from the mid-20th century who influenced legends like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, among others. She has been called the “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

This 2016 play is set in the showroom of a Mississippi funeral home in 1946. Rosetta (Michelle E. Jordan) and her entourage are staying there because black people didn’t have much choice in the segregated South.

Rosetta has discovered Marie Knight (Marissa Rudd), a singer/pianist whom she’s considering as a musical partner.

The plot focuses on their contrasting styles. Although both are religious, Rosetta is far more liberal, considering her music to be praise enough for the lord.

The prudish Marie seems to see anything fun or rollicking as sinful. Hence, Rosetta does her best to convince Marie to let loose. The transformation doesn’t seem to take long.

Because Rudd’s Marie doesn’t always articulate clearly, it’s difficult to catch some of her lines and follow the story.

That’s not the case with Jordan’s Rosetta, who speaks her mind and lines clearly.

The real highlights in this show come from Jordan’s roof-raising singing, mostly of gospel songs like “This Train,” “Sit Down” and others. She has a powerhouse voice that’s irresistible.

On the other hand, Rudd’s voice has a sharp edge, especially on higher notes or at higher volumes. She’s at her best in the quiet “Peace in the Valley.”

Music director William Liberatore supplies Rosetta and Marie’s piano playing, while Schuyler McFadden provides Rosetta’s acoustic and electric guitar playing.

The program says that all songs in the show were originally recorded by Rosetta Tharpe, who’s heard as the audience arrives.

The show is directed by TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley, who notes that it was presented as part of the company’s annual New Works Festival in 2015.

The handsome set, complete with coffins, is by Christopher Fitzer with lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, sound by Cliff Caruthers and costumes by Jill C. Bowers.

Running about an hour and 40 minutes without intermission, “Marie and Rosetta” will continue through March 31 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit