Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Marie and Rosetta
Northlight Theatre
Review by Christine Malcom

Alexis J. Roston and Bethany Thomas
Photo by Michael Brosilow
To conclude its 2022-2023 season, Northlight Theatre is staging Marie and Rosetta, George Brant's play that imagines the first rehearsal of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight in 1946, before the two embarked on a multi-decade, multi-faceted relationship whose impact on music cannot be overestimated. Under the direction of E. Faye Butler (in her Northlight directorial debut), Bethany Thomas (Sister Rosetta Tharpe) and Alexis J. Roston (Marie Knight) channel the artistic and spiritual power of their characters, gloriously carrying a play that is disappointingly thin overall and a production that is sometimes a bit muddled.

Perhaps the most serious issue with the play itself is its own crisis of seriousness. Early on, despite the considerable (and enjoyable) humor generated by Rosetta's prickly yet eager approach to Marie and all she has to offer to Tharpe's own career, Brant manages to pique the audience's interest. Sister Rosetta is exacting and wary, to be sure, but she is no eccentric, erratic character, determined to run roughshod over the prim, nervous young woman she has managed to lure out on to the road. She goads Marie, certainly, but strategically, so that the two can open a genuine mutual dialogue about musical styles, the meaning and purpose of art, and its relationship to salvation.

The exchanges during these early sections of the play are engaging. The dialogue is just naturalistic enough that the audience is never led to question how it is that two women who barely know one another would come to such intimacy in so short a span of time, particularly given the very real trial by fire that touring artists undergo. By the play's end, however, the depth and quality of the exchanges decline steeply. Although it's not quite accurate to characterize Brant's play as a jukebox musical, there is a definite sense that Brant is ultimately there primarily to string together the (admittedly transcendent) musical performances.

The uneven interest in and attention to the various aspects of these very real women's lives is not just disappointing in the way that any show with a weak "second act" (the show has no intermission) might disappoint. Rather, Brant's lack of (or at least intermittent) interest in specifics like sexuality and race undermine a seemingly sincere desire to honor two women who have never been given their due.

In particular, consigning the lone kiss between the two characters to a goodbye Marie is saying to Rosetta, having made up her body for the funeral service. This is particularly troubling given the amount of time devoted to discussing the men in both women's lives. The end result is the (presumably unintentional) implication that their romantic relationship (and perhaps all Tharpe's relationships with women) emanates from despair at the cruelty and depravity of men. This, at the very least, flirts with denial of the full humanity of the play's subjects.

Although Northlight's specific production has its strengths, these are not always enough to overcome (or even avoid complicating) the shortcomings of the play itself. John Culbert's set design is quite solid, on the whole. Culbert frames an irregular space on the thrust stage with three coffins: what is clearly the deluxe model is set a step above the rest of the stage, up center, and enclosed by a bay window in stained glass. Upstage right, a more squared off, nondescript casket in a darker wood sits head to toe with the downstage cot. Up left, at an oblique angle, is an open casket fronted by a bench supporting Rosetta's resonator in its case, and her Vox amp.

Otherwise, Culbert's set comprises a small round table with a pair of mismatched, straight-backed chairs, just in front of the amp, and a short, backless pew that sits just downstage of the upright piano. The overall suggestion is a cross between a church basement and a funeral home. This is somewhat awkward, as dialogue specifically notes that the place in Mississippi the band has secured for both rehearsal and accommodations is a funeral home and insurance agency, but certainly, the dressing of the set and the careful build-out of scrubbed but worn white wood emotionally captures the space, even if the play saddles the design with an unworkable line.

McKinley Johnson's costumes, which seem to bleed into the props, are similarly very well done. Rosetta's twinkling silver, floor-length gown with its cape makes the most of Thomas's tall, imposing figure. For the diminutive Marie, Johnson chooses a demure, full-skirted, silvery pink, tea-length dress and pink Mary Jane pumps. The looks complement one another, but also make the most of the contrast between the actors' body types, which provides an unexpected and welcome lift to the comedic rapport between the two.

The lighting (design by Jared Gooding) and sound (design by Rick Sims) are somewhat less successful. Gooding seems to have been charged with signaling the play's unreality well before the play itself offers any real indication of this facet of the text that does not read as simply some clunky dialogue. Each time one of the characters launches into a musical number, the lighting changes (and some changes occur within numbers), but the nature of the changes is not always clear. Late in the play, there are dynamic lighting cues suggestive of a club or even an arena setting. When Rosetta arrives downstage to perform a Cotton Club number, we finally understand, thanks to a wash of smoky blue light, that we are in the world of memory, but there's little before this point that leads the audience's attention to this device. Most awkwardly, there's a sudden rainbow lighting cue that seems completely unattached to the romantic relationship between the characters.

It's unreasonable to demand of a production–or indeed of its actors–that the cast be able to play piano and guitar with the facility required to do justice to their real-life counterparts. To the credit of Roston and Thomas, their "faking" on piano and guitar are far better than good enough. However, the way the production navigates sound during the musical numbers is sometimes distracting. The actors are miked for dialogue. When they are singing, the addition of a bit of reverb is subtle enough not to distract. However, the volume of the piano shifts (sometimes within numbers) in a way that is not reconcilable with the visuals, and there is no convincing explanation for the fact that the resonator's volume exceeds that of the electric guitar.

Whatever shortcomings the production has are paradoxically amplified, because one truly wants the absolute best for the performers, just as the bumps in the road of the play are frustrating, as one wants these women to finally be given some measure of their due. As singers, Roston and Thomas are a true dream team. Roston, in particular, flashes impressive stylistic range as she transitions from "high church" Marie into the Marie that embraces her gifts and basks in the warmth of the light and heat she and Rosetta create together. Thomas has the task of seeming to be Rosetta, fully formed, from the play's outset, and yet the Rosetta who becomes more than she could have imagined in concert with Maria. She accomplishes this more than admirably.

But it would be a disservice to comment only on the actors' musical performance. Both elevate the material. In defiance of the occasional opening night stumbles with a dialogue-heavy two-hander, they reliably found their beats with one another, both comedic and dramatic, even when the underlying material provides less to go on than either deserves.

Marie and Rosetta runs through August 6, 2023, at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 847-673-6300.