23 February 2016

'Cabin in the Sky'

The history of African Americans on Broadway, especially before, say, 1975 or so, is skimpy.  Looking only at musicals, there were black characters in plays like 1927’s Show Boat (though in many shows, the roles were played by white actors in blackface because mixed-race casts were risky—and even prohibited in Jim Crow states).  All-black shows appeared as early as 1898 with Clorindy, a series of scenes and sketches by black poet and lyricist Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) and musician-composer Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), deemed the first Broadway musical with an African-American cast, followed in 1903 by In Dahomey starring Bert Williams (1874-1922) and George Walker (1873-1911), the first nationally prominent black comedy team, written by Williams and Walker in collaboration with Dunbar and Cook.  In 1921, Shuffle Along came into New York after a moderately successful tour—and became a smash hit with white audiences.  Written by vaudevillians Flournoy Miller (1887-1971) and Aubrey Lyles (1884?-1932) based on one of their music hall sketches, and scored by Eubie Blake (1883-1983; music) and Noble Sissle (1889-1975; lyrics), its story was simple and silly, but the music was glorious (spawning the hit “I’m Just Wild About Harry”) and Shuffle Along ran for 504 performances on Broadway (to integrated audiences) and then spawned multiple touring companies. (A revival of Shuffle Along with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, directed by George C. Wolfe, who’s written a new libretto, and choreographed by Savion Glover, will open on Broadway in April 2016.)

Sissle and Blake went on to compose other Broadway musicals, none as momentous as Shuffle Along, and a short-lived trend of black musicals enlivened Broadway theater for a time.  Until Porgy and Bess hit the boards in 1935.  Set in Charleston, South Carolina, with a serious book and soaring score, Porgy and Bess, the Gershwins’ folk opera, was a ground-breaker, but there was little follow-up.  Despite its acclaim, Porgy and Bess only ran 124 performances in its début mounting, but it quickly became a perennial on Broadway (seven revivals through 2012) and spawned a 1959 award-winning film adaptation with a star-studded cast.  In this milieu arose Cabin in the Sky, a 1940 all-black musical with a book by Lynn Root, lyrics by John Latouche, and music by Vernon Duke.  It also had choreography by George Balanchine (who directed as well), assisted by Katherine Dunham, and a cast that included Dunham, Dooley Wilson (soon to be nationally recognized as Sam the piano-player at Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca), Ethel Waters, and Todd Duncan (Porgy in Porgy and Bess).  The play ran 156 performances at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld).  Cabin, however, has been described as a “simplistically drawn allegory” and a “succès d’estime,” and has never been revived on Broadway since its première.  (There was a 47-performance run Off-Broadway in 1964 with Rosetta LeNoire and a concert staging at New York City’s 14th Street YMHA presented by Musicals Tonight! in October 2003.)

I’d known of Cabin in the Sky by title for decades, but I’d never seen it or heard the score.  (It’s possible my father saw the play in his youth—he saw a lot of the classics growing up in New York City—but the cast album, if there even was one, wasn’t among those I inherited.)  Even though I was familiar with songs like “Taking a Chance on Love” and “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” (which was added for the bowdlerized 1943 movie version), I was never aware they’d come from Cabin.  So when my theater friend Diana called to say that Encores! was presenting Cabin, I jumped at the chance to see it.  Perhaps not as historically prominent as Mark Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, which I saw in an Encores! Concert in 2013 (see my blog report on 1 August 2013), but it’s something I’d known about in a vague sense and wanted to check out.  So on Friday evening, 12 February, Diana and I met at City Center to see the Cabin concert, despite the bitter-cold temperatures (it was under 25ºF that night).  The Cabin in the Sky concert opened at City Center on 10 February and ran through the 14th.

Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel, who also made the concert adaptation of the book, calls Cabin “one of the most unusual black musical theater experiments” in American stage history.  The play began as a story, “Little Joe,” by playwright and screenwriter Lynn Root (1905-97) and passed through several hands before reaching choreographer George Balanchine (1904-83), who showed it to composer Vernon Duke (1903-69).  After reading the story, essentially a libretto without the music, Duke pronounced Little Joe” “a workable book complete with song cues,” but he was reluctant to take it on because he felt his Russian heritage wasn’t a good fit for the story’s African-American setting.  So taken with Root’s story was Duke, however, that he relented and enlisted John Latouche (1914-56) to write the lyrics after the project was turned down by other composers such as Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg (who would later write new songs with Harold Arlen for the film score), and Johnny Mercer. 

Duke, Latouche, and set designer Boris Aronson went south to Virginia, Latouche’s home state, to get a feel for the play’s milieu.  (The play’s setting is described only as “Somewhere in the South,” but there are hints in the script that Root was thinking of Virginia; not the least suggestive is the song “My Old Virginia Home on the Nile.”)  Ultimately, the script and score were written and producer Albert Lewis convinced Balanchine to direct and choreograph the production.  (Cabin was Balanchine’s début as the director of an entire Broadway show.)  The creative team also brought in Katherine Dunham (1909-2006), to whom they also gave a lead role (Georgia Brown), and her company to create the dances.  The J. Rosamond Johnson gospel choir was added to sing traditional spirituals in the show to augment the original material. 

Coming on the heels of both Porgy and Bess and Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures (on Broadway in revival at the same time as Porgy and Bess), the cast of Cabin’s première included Duncan, the original Porgy, as The Lawd’s General, and Rex Ingram, De Lawd in the 1936 film version of Green Pastures, as Lucifer, Jr. (The Head Man in the Encores! concert).  Ethel Waters agreed to star as Petunia Jackson, Little Joe’s wife, once the title had been changed from Little Joe to Cabin in the Sky.  Like Green Pastures, the musical had a biblical premise and featured gospel singing; like Porgy and Bess, it was set in the rural South. 

But the play was only a modest hit on stage, and the MGM film version was considerably altered, omitting most of the Duke-Latouche score (replaced with Harburg-Arlen numbers).  Little of the original staging has survived, reports Viertel—just the script, the piano score, the première’s program (as a guide to where some numbers went in the performance sequence), and four songs by Waters that were recorded with the show’s orchestra (to give a hint about the arrangements).  The original orchestrations are lost and so is Balanchine and Dunham’s choreography.  (The film version was directed by Vincente Minnelli and, though no choreographer was credited, Busby Berkeley is known to have assisted Minnelli and clearly “Hollywoodized” the dancing.) From these scant artifacts, Encores! had to reconstruct Cabin for performance.  Starting in 2014, under the guidance of Encores! musical director Rob Berman and arranger Jonathan Tunick (2014 winner of the Stephen Sondheim Award for contributions “to the works of legendary composer, Stephen Sondheim, and the canon of American theater”), the Encores! team reassembled the score, orchestrations, and dances as closely as they could to the 1940 production.  (In honor of Tunick’s recognition, I ran an old report on the 1976 première of Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, which Tunick orchestrated, on ROT on 15 May 2014.)  Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an actor and director with a special gift for the works of August Wilson, co-edited the text, deciding what should stay and what should go, including sensitive racial references (he excised words like ‘pickaninny,’ for example) that in 2016 might disrupt the receptivity of the play. 

(That the play, like many other “African-American” scripts of its era—with the notable exception of Shuffle Along—was created by white men was a concern only glancingly noted by the current press.  Even the major contribution of Dunham, the only black artist on the creative team, went uncredited in the program, a common practice when it came to African-American collaborators.  Only Jesse Green of New York magazine made a point of this circumstance, calling the play “compromised.”  By today’s standards, the characters come close to racial caricatures, and so does the plot.  In addition, as Green pointed out, the musical’s set in “a mythical American South untroubled by racism or even much poverty,” as if those aspects of American life didn’t exist.  Of course, I don’t know what else, in addition to the word ‘pickaninny,’ Santiago-Hudson cut from the text, but it’s pretty certain that Cabin in the Sky was a product, however well-intentioned, of an America that practiced at the very least a subliminal racism, including on its mainstream stages.  Green also saw that the top-flight black performers in the Encores! Cabin being “available for this production says a lot about the conditions still governing the commercial theater.”  Nonetheless, as even Green acknowledged, seeing even “compromised” plays like this one—and Encores! has staged quite a few of them in its history—is a useful and worthwhile practice lest we forget that aspect of our theater history.  Furthermore, Green suggests, “the opportunity to keep black musical artists working, if even on thorny material like this, is not to be gainsaid.”)

The story of Cabin in the Sky is of chronic gambler and womanizer “Little Joe” Jackson (Michael Potts) who, having been slashed by Domino Johnson (Jonathan Kirkland) at John Henry’s club over an unpaid IOU, lies on his deathbed.  As Little Joe is attended by Dr. Jones (Wayne Pretlow) and Brother Green (J. D. Webster), the pastor, Joe’s wife, the devout Petunia Jackson (LaChanze), prays to God not to take her husband, whom she says is really a good man at heart.  She even promises that if God gives Joe back to her, she’ll gladly go with him when his final time comes.  On the scene is the Head Man (Chuck Cooper), Lucifer’s agent, perched on a gold throne, aided by three Henchmen (Dennis Stowe, Tiffany Mann, Rebecca L. Hargrove), expecting to pick up Little Joe’s soul.  Dr. Jones pronounces Joe dead, but Petunia’s prayers have reached Heaven and the Lord’s General (Norm Lewis) arrives on a silver throne with three Angels (Nicholas Ward, Kristolyn Lloyd, Jared Joseph).  The two supernatural figures argue over who should get Joe’s soul, and they strike a deal to give Little Joe six months to redeem himself by living a moral life.  

Joe rises from his bed, much to the surprise of everyone—and the delight of Petunia.  Joe intends to live a Godly life, but he’s sorely tempted.  He attends church with his wife and stays away from gambling and John Henry’s place—until a fellow comes around selling sweepstake tickets.  Joe refuses at first, but in the end, breaks down and buys just one ticket.  Meanwhile, he’s watched over by the ever-vigilant Petunia, who takes John Henry (Harvy Blanks) and his men on to “settle” a craps debt—by beating them at their own game with the loaded dice they tried to switch on her!  With Petunia keeping her eye on Little Joe on behalf of the Lord, he’s still stalked by Georgia Brown (Carly Hughes), a gold-digging vamp who learns that the sweepstake ticket Joe bought is a winner and, on the side of the Devil, tempts Joe to go off to live the high life with her.  

Petunia returns from an errand just at that moment and thinks that Joe has brought Georgia into her house to cheat on her.  Petunia never lets her husband explain how the woman came to be there and Petunia sends both of them packing.  They head to John Henry’s club, stopping on the way to acquire some sharp duds—Joe enters in black tie and a topper!  Who else should arrive at John Henry’s but Petunia herself, come to drown her disappointment in Joe.  Domino Johnson, who’s just been let out of jail for carving Joe up in the first place, shows up to finish the job.  Domino’s finished his sentence of six months—exactly the length of Little Joe’s reprieve.  When Domino makes for Joe, Petunia intercedes and pushes Domino away.  But the assailant turns, pulls out a pistol and shoots both Little Joe and Petunia.

No one doubts that Petunia’s bound for Heaven, but once again, the Lord’s General and the Head Man vie for Joe’s soul.  The Head Man expects to take him because he slipped, and the Lord’s General, reading from a ledger, seems to say that Joe’s tally comes out on the Devil’s side.  But there’s a flag on the play because Georgia Brown, the cause of Joe’s downfall, felt so bad about her part in Joe’s death (time has moved faster on Earth than in Heaven, so it’s many years later now), that she joined the church, opened a school for orphans and spent the rest of her life doing good.  Since that’s down to Little Joe, the Lord’s General explains, Joe’s soul is saved and he gets to accompany Petunia to Heaven.

I included a brief description of Encores! and its mission in my report on Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella (10 April 2014).  The series’ home since it’s inception in 1994, New York City Center at 131 W. 55th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues), was built in 1923 as the Mecca Temple of the Shriners.  Replacing a movie house on the site, the current building is in the Neo-Moorish style with myriad polychrome tiles both in the interior decor and on the exterior façade forming mosaics.  The tiled roof dome is 54 feet tall.  The association met at the temple until the stock market crash of 1929 made it impossible for the Mecca Shriners to pay the taxes on the building. 

In the 1940s, the building became the property of New York City and, threatened with demolition, it was converted in 1943 by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia into the city’s first performing arts center.  The main stage seats 2,257 patrons and on the lower level there are two smaller theaters which seat 299 and 150 spectators each; there are also four studios in the center. Today, New York City Center is home to a number of performing arts troupes such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Manhattan Theatre Club, the Flamenco Festival, and the Martha Graham Dance Company, among others.  (MTC occupies the two lower-level houses.)  Encores! Off-Center, a spin-off of Encores! that focuses on Off-Broadway shows, was launched at City Center in the summer of 2013 under the artistic directorship of composer Jeanine Tesori.  In 2000, the American Theatre Wing awarded Encores! a Tony for Excellence in Theatre. 

The show has the reputation of having a terrific score but a weak book, and that turns out to be accurate.  (In New York’s Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz judged it: “Score, 10; book, 3 — or maybe 2 in this case.”)  That fact, however, makes it perfect material for a concert presentation, which dispenses with much of the libretto to focus on the score and the singing of the Broadway vets in the cast.  Certainly the characters are one-dimensional and unsophisticated, and the story, which seems to owe a little to Goethe’s Faust (a completion between God and Satan for  one man’s soul, a set period of time after which the man in question will lose his soul, and a sudden reprieve at the last moment which sends his soul to Heaven instead of Hell; see my recent post, “Faust Clones, Part 1,” 15 January 2016), is a bare-bones plot on which to hang the songs and dances, which have more to offer.  (I can only imagine the dances conceived by Balanchine, one of the great choreographers in ballet as well as on Broadway, and Dunham, a renowned dancer-chorographer of the mid-20th century, since there’s no record of what they looked like and the Encores! stage, largely occupied by the 31-piece orchestra, leaves little room for elaborate movement.)

Director Santiago-Hudson managed quite well on the cramped stage—made even more space-challenged by the two large thrones for the emissaries of God and Satan, accompanied by their minions, which were nearly always present at stage left and right.  (The next world’s agents weren’t just a decorative entourage: the two trios added marvelous harmony to their masters’ songs, like otherworldly Pips or Raylettes.)  Most of the story doesn’t require a lot of physical action—the bar scene in act two is an exception—and Santiago-Hudson kept the show moving without drawing attention to the space problem.  So did choreographer Camille A. Brown, who must have had a tougher job as the dances were generally quite energetic (Dziemianowicz called them “sinewy and spirited,” which is exactly right) and usually involved several members of the company up to the entire ensemble.  (The full cast for this presentation of Cabin was 46—probably another reason the show isn’t revived.)  

Santiago-Hudson clearly cast the best voices he could find—not to take anything away from the acting.  Some of the actors are already well known for their singing (LaChanze, a Tony-winner for the original production of The Color Purple), but all the featured cast were superb in the musical numbers and the chorus measured up equally.  I don’t like to single any one performer out here, but I must say that Chuck Cooper (Tony for The Life), as the Head Man, has a genuinely stirring baritone that resonates throughout the theater.  (We were in the middle of the mezzanine.)  Beyond that, all of the singers brought character and emotion to the songs that stood in excellently for the acting in the missing book scenes.  (For those who don’t know the Encores! process, the concerts are only rehearsed for eight days, plus one dress rehearsal.  The actors carry scripts for many of the book scenes.)  Needless to say, the standards like “Taking a Chance” and “Happiness” were joys to hear, especially so gorgeously rendered, but there were also nice surprises among the less-well-known pieces, like “Do What You Wanna Do,” sung by Cooper’s Head Man (a paean to . . . well, devilry) and Georgia Brown’s saucy “Honey in the Honeycomb,” vibrantly sung by Hughes (and which I urge someone to revive in a contemporary pop or rock style).

Between the simplistic book and the cuts for the concert presentation, the characters are pretty simple.   Nonetheless, the company gave them color and dimension beyond the mere words Root provided them.  This is down to Santiago-Hudson, too, of course—though given the short rehearsal schedule, the actors would have had to do a lot of (quick) work on their own.  Perhaps the hardest characters to fill out were the Head Man and the Lord’s General because they’re essentially allegorical figures with no back story.  Yet both Cooper and Norm Lewis (Tony nomination for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) brought a sense of humor and a kind of frat house competitiveness to the parts that prevented them from being the stiffs they could have been.

Of course, one of the great pleasures of the Encores! concert performances of seldom-seen musicals is hearing the score played by a full orchestra, the way they were produced back in the day.  Broadway orchestras have been shrinking consistently for the past couple of decades so that it’s a rarity to hear ensembles of 28, 30, or more nowadays.  But Encores! regularly uses full-sized orchestras for its concerts: The Most Happy Fella had 38 musicians and Cabin had 31.  (Irma La Douce in May 2014 had just 10 instruments, but that was dictated by the nature of the show: the musical ensemble represented a café house band rather than a theater orchestra.  See my Irma report on 20 May 2014.)  Like the cast, the musicians are all Broadway pros and many have been playing the Encores! concerts for a while.  (They, too, only get a few rehearsals for each production, so they need to draw on all their skills and experience to hit their marks and pick up their cues, so to speak.)  Under the direction of Encores! musical director Rob Berman, the Cabin orchestra made Tunick’s arrangements of the Latouche-Duke score swell right from the overture.  (Overtures apparently have become almost passé—you don’t hear them much anymore—but I like them.  Not only does a musical’s overture give you a preview of what’s to come, musically speaking, but it sets the tone for the show before the curtain—another bygone theater element—goes up.  It also signals the start of the performance, the moment the real world morphs into the stage world, in a way that nothing else does—like the blinking lights in the lobby that tells us to go on into the auditorium.)

There’s a trade-off, of course.  The large orchestra is placed on the stage rather than in a pit, reducing the playing area the director and choreographer can use for the play’s action.  It also reduces the flexibility of the stage for the set design, which tends more to the practical than the pictorial at Encores! productions.  In Cabin, Anna Louizos created the environment with carefully selected pieces of furniture—Little Joe’s bed, the bar at John Henry’s, a bench in the Jackson’s back yard—and a projected backdrop, painted in a naïve, folk-art style, that helped set the scenes.  It was functional and allowed the maximum use of the stage space remaining after the orchestra platform upstage had been installed.  (Hand props are kept to a minimum, mostly because actors carrying scripts can’t manipulate objects very well.) 

Karen Perry’s costumes were simple, too, for the most part; only the Head Man and the Lord’s General had what you’d call flashy attire.  (The General was in a white outfit that looked like a cross between a naval uniform with epaulets and a silver sash, and an Elvis jump suit; the Head Man, wearing the coolest costume on the stage—the Devil, it seems, doesn’t only get the best lines, he gets the best duds—wore red—what else?—trousers and a red sequined jacket that sparkled in the stage lights.)  The women’s dresses came in all colors and the skirts swirled out when the actors danced like Marilyn Monroe’s in the famous Seven Year Itch photo.  The men’s outfits varied, but were generally less colorful—though the trousers came close to zoot suit pants.  The whole look was a kind of romanticized ’40s, like a Hollywood movie set in that era, but made in the ’50s or ’60s.

In the press, the response to the Encores! Cabin in the Sky was pretty even.  The Daily News’s Dziemianowicz, calling the show “a tuneful curiosity and a hit-and-miss labor of love,” characterized it this way: “Songs by Vernon Duke and John Latouche are mostly ear-ticklers, wrapped in newly restored arrangements that lend a juicy big-band bounce. Lynn Root’s book is an odd mix of faith, fable and fantasy.”  In amNew York,  Matt Windman, pronouncing the production not “so much a revival as it is a full-scale resuscitation,” described the plot as a “combination of romance, marital drama and religious trial.”  With Santiago-Hudson’s “focused direction” and Berman’s “characteristically excellent music direction,” Windman concluded that Cabin was “an admirable production of a dated, diffuse and difficult work.”  Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post asserted that with the “brilliant” score, this Cabin in the Sky is “one of the best-sung, best-danced Encores! ever.” 

Newsday’s Linda Winer, dubbing Cabin “a naive period piece,” lamented, “Despite an A-list cast, the elaborate and loving direction and adaptation by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and viscerally original choreography by Camille A. Brown, the production can’t shake off enough dated stereotypes to revitalize history.”  She blamed “a hokey old story” and “a jaunty, if hardly revelatory mix of jazz, showbiz and gospel.”  Winer praised the “wonderful” dancing, the “textural transparency” of the choral numbers, and Santiago-Hudson’s “elegant musical ear,” but found the acting “comic mugging.”  Noting that Vernon Duke founded the Society for Forgotten Music, the Newsday reviewer concluded, “‘Cabin in the Sky’ has been remembered, which, alas, is not the same as being rediscovered.”

In the New York Times, Christopher Isherwood dubbed Cabin in the Sky “musically vibrant, dramatically a dud” and reported, “The first act of Lynn Root’s book . . . contains virtually no action and glides by rather sluggishly, enlivened only by a couple of standout songs.”  The Timesman continued, “Things pick up, modestly, in the second act,” but demurs that “little of that life [of the original Broadway production] blooms anew on the City Center stage.”  He complained, “If I closed my eyes, I think I might have had a better time at ‘Cabin in the Sky’ . . ., since the singing throughout is so pleasurable.”  Despite the “suitably seductive” rendering of the score by the Encores! orchestra, Isherwood ended on a down note: “[B]y the time this sweet fable of a sinner redeemed, and then redeemed again, panted to its conclusion, I had long ceased to care whether the Devil or the Lord took home the big, or rather little, prize.”

Describing the story as “icky” and “very thin” in New York magazine, Jesse Green affirmed it’s “full of faux-naïve folkloric touches that give off a strong odor of condescension today.”  In a tone that even sounds a little angry, Green added, “The ending is happy if you are Christian enough to believe that getting to heaven is worth it even if it took a gunfight to get there, while dragging your blameless wife along.”  “Were this only a play,” the man from New York asserted, “no one would produce it now . . . .  As drama, it is so mild that cringeworthiness may be its strongest trait.”  It’s not a play, however, Green continued, “it’s a musical.”  “The score is flat-out lovely,” with “a clutch of” tunes with Duke’s “adventurous jazz harmonies.”  But the New York review-writer still isn’t fully satisfied: “And yet a show so problematic cannot ever be totally satisfying.”  He faulted Santiago-Hudson’s “very flat and visually cluttered” staging, which Green found “emotionally withdrawn as if slightly embarrassed.”  He had, however, words of high praise for both Hughes as Georgia Brown and Camille Brown’s choreography. 

The cyber press paralleled the print outlets.  On Theater Pizzazz, Brian Scott Lipton, warning that Cabin in the Sky is “the kind of early musical theater piece that, in less seasoned hands, could easily have come off as unpleasantly dated and too folksy by half,” but, “thanks to” a sterling creative and performing ensemble, “the result is delightful.”  This, despite the fact that “Lynn Root’s book is a bit silly and old-fashioned, and the characters are mostly two-dimensional” and “the show is written so lightly that the actual outcomes hardly matter.”  Still, said Lipton, “The score . . . does matter.”  After lauding the sets, costumes, and choreography, TP’s reviewer concluded, “Indeed, this is one ‘Cabin’ you’ll leave grudgingly, albeit with a smile on your face.”  On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart described the Encores! production “lovingly re-created”: though the “characters are a little too cute for their own good,” Santiago-Hudson and co-adapter Viertel “keep the tone buoyant and airy, highlighting the craftsmanship of the score while acknowledging the ridiculousness of the book.  Nothing is too serious and everything is fair game for a laugh.”  He added, “Really, the wisp of a book is just an excuse for the song and dance.”  Though Stewart gave kudos to many of the performers, he declared, “LaChanze delivers the evening's only completely sincere performance. . . .  It’s only through her performance that the serious themes of life and death ever come to the fore in this mostly lighthearted romp.”  The TM writer found this satisfactory, since, he offered, “We don’t go to Encores! for gut-wrenching drama; we go to hear beautiful old Broadway scores brought back to life with a full onstage orchestra, and that’s exactly what we get here.” 

Matthew Murray of Talkin’ Broadway, averring of Cabin “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,” adjudged that at City Center, “what should be searing is instead a snooze.”  Murray confirmed, “There’s no single point of failure, no one culprit at whom all the fingers should be pointed,” even acknowledging that under Santiago-Hudson’s direction, the production “is hardly poorly executed,” praising the “fanciful sets . . . and costumes” and “playful lighting.”  He went on to laud the actors, the score, and the musical performance, “But,” he laments, “there’s a shimmering, shivering ‘So what?’ quality about the proceedings that none of these 24-karat components can overcome.”  The TB blogger diagnosed “a listlessness at work that keeps sparks from igniting into flames” and asserted that “there’s little meat or spice to the” main plot line so that “it’s tough to rustle up desire to follow it to the end.”  Murray found Camille Brown’s dances “workmanlike and lacking in energy” and the actors “technically proficient but a bit short on house-flooding charisma.”  He concluded, given what was to come of musical theater post-Oklahoma!, that “Cabin in the Sky just doesn’t feel connected at all.”  BroadwayWorld’s Michael Dale declared, “Cabin in the Sky, though mildly dramatic, is more of a showcase for its stars than an attempt at serious musical theatre.  At Encores!, the stars come through divinely as do Vernon Duke’s sweet, sweet melodies.”

Barry Singer of the Huffington Post confessed that, like me, “I have long wondered about Cabin in the Sky”—though he had stronger and more personal reasons for his curiosity.  Unhappily, Singer found that “Cabin in the Sky at Encores! did not really settle anything for me”; he felt that the Duke-Latouche score “was not fully trusted” since it was “augmented . . with a surfeit of beautifully sung, authentic, black spirituals that went on far too long and only served to obscure Vernon Duke’s full Cabin in the Sky conception.”  Even Camille Brown’s choreography, “magnificent, to a degree,. . . went on with a frenzy and a sense of overkill that seemed to cry out: ‘Look at me! Not at this show, which we all find a little embarrassing.  Don't we. . . .”  In the end, Singer lamented, “Something about this piece seems destined to always tempt condescension in one form or another.”  Steven Suskin, on the same site a few days earlier, declared, “There’s ‘honey in the honeycomb’—and ‘jelly in the jelly-roll’ as well—at City Center this week with Cabin in the Sky,” especially noting that “the overall score itself turns out to be irrepressibly joyous.”  Echoing his colleague’s caveat about the “book trouble” of pre-Oklahoma! musicals, Suskin lauded Brown’s “vibrant choreography” and the “impeccable corps of dancers,” which, he asserted, “carries the evening, which I suppose we could describe as ‘heavenly.’”  Despite a “flimsy” plot, Suskin affirmed, “Cabin in the Sky is well worth a hearing, and Encores! has polished it into a honey of a show.” 

Like my experience at The Cradle Will Rock 2½ years ago, I’m glad to have finally seen a rendering of Cabin.  As I’ve confessed on ROT numerous times before, I have a fondness for the old musicals—it was how I was introduced to theater as a boy—and I’m also a student of theater history.  Seeing the Encores! presentation of Cabin has filled in a gap in my theater life.  Beyond that, however, it’s always a huge pleasure to see such immensely talented actors, singers, and dancers, as well as the work of their directors and choreographers, doing what they do best.  Even if Cabin is ultimately forgettable as a play, the performance is not.

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