The Godmother Of Rock And Roll
Receives The Respect She Is Due
Marie And Rosetta
Greater Boston Stage Company
Reviewed By Bobby Franklin
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a major influence on rock and roll music. She was a favorite of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many other top names from the early days of rock music. Beginning in 1940 Sister Rosetta began using electric guitar in her Gospel Music performances. Her unique style would influence Chuck Berry and Elvis. Just last year she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Still, most people have not heard of her. With the advent of Youtube, videos of her performances are now available for the general public to view.
In Marie And Rosetta, playwright George Brant has attempted to tell the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. This is done by setting the play in a funeral home where Tharpe and her young protege Marie Knight are having their first rehearsal, as they are joining together for upcoming performances. Why a funeral home? The story takes place in 1946 in Mississippi and the Jim Crow South wasn’t exactly accommodating to black performers traveling through the area. Since they could not stay at the local hotels, they were dependent on friends finding them a place to stay. On this night it happened to be a funeral home. Toward the end of the play that symbolism will play into the story.
Pier Lamia Porter as Marie and Lovely Hoffman as Sister Rosetta both deliver terrific performances and have amazing voices. Ms Hoffman’s interpretation of Tharpe brings the soul of her being to life at the theatre in Stoneham, MA. This is not impersonation or caricature, but rather an exploration of a dynamic and powerful woman. Accompanied by Marquis Lewis on guitar and musical director Erica Telisnor on piano, (Ms Hoffman and Ms Porter go through the motions on muted instruments) the musical numbers are outstanding.
Not all of Sister Rosetta’s hits will be familiar to most audience members, but you will leave the theatre wanting to hear more. From Gospel songs such as Were You There, to This Train, and Didn’t It Rain to the smoking Tall Skinny Papa and rocking Up Above My Head, there is never a dull musical moment.
Ms Hoffman, who said she grew up in the church (her father was a minister) knows her Gospel music. She, as Sister Rosetta did, is able to combine the spiritual with a rocking and soulful influence to recreate the sound that was at the root of the early rock era. While she is not actually playing the guitar, her movements with it show how much Tharpe influenced the early musicians. I was very much taken with her performance and was left wanting more.
Ms Porter as Marie is at first seen as shy and reluctant to step into the spotlight but quickly gains confidence with Tharpe’s encouragement. Her interpretation of Were You There is marvelous, as was her take on Peace In The Valley.
Both Hoffman and Porter were outstanding when singing together, most notably on Didn’t It Rain, Up Above My Head, and Tall Skinny Papa. The two had just worked together in Little Shop of Horrors at the Lyric Stage and actually began prepping for Marie and Rosetta while still there. If there was any strain with working together through two shows without a break, it didn’t show here.
The music is the strong part of this production, and while Sister Rosetta’s story is a fascinating one, the dialogue gets a bit muddy and drawn out at times. This is not a major flaw and certainly is no reason to pass on this wonderful show. I just wish it had been a bit stronger. I think what is a very good story could be made into a fantastic one with a little touching up.
The Sister Rosetta Tharpe story is an important one to tell. She is known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll, and is certainly deserving of that title. Seeing Marie and Rosetta at the Greater Boston Stage Company is a fine way to be introduced to this musical legend. As was the case with me, you will find yourself wanting to hear more of her music. You will also want to learn more about this amazing woman who said “I brought a little club to the church, and a little church to the club”.
I recommend you head up to Stoneham to see this solid and very enjoyable musical play, not only because it is very good, but also because it is important to get to know Sister Rosetta Tharpe. You’ll be glad you did.
Marie And Rosetta
Directed By Pascale Floresta
Though November 10
The Greater Boston Stage Company
In Collaboration With Front Porch Arts Collective