Crowns, a musical version of the popular coffee table book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in ChurchHats, by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, was adapted by playwright Regina Taylor for the stage a decade ago. (It played some seasons back at Asolo Rep.) And it was successful both in its initial production and in subsequent regional productions after, with its blend of many gospel music favorites and true stories/memories/anecdotes recited by its mostly female cast.
But it’s hard to see the full impact the show might have in the current production at Venice Theatre. Director/choreographer Kristofer Geddie (who’s also the theater’s director of diversity) and his cast have been working hard to bring Crowns to life, no doubt, but on opening night the show still felt tentative. And those who haven’t seen it before may be puzzled or confused as to the show’s characters and relationships; it’s not always easy to figure out who’s who here, as there’s not much of a traditional storyline and little or no dialogue between the cast members.
We do understand that young Yolanda (Princess Jackson), a tough Brooklyn teen who’s just suffered a great family loss, has been sent South to stay with her grandmother (Phyllis Banks) and other churchgoing women who try to offer their wisdom—along with their fashion sense in their hats, or “crowns”—to help her get through and find comfort in community and religion. Wearing their hats to church on Sundays is long tradition these ladies are proud of; in often hard lives, their hats provide color, style and a connection both to their mothers and/or grandmothers and to God.
And the hats glimpsed here, from African headgear in the opening scene to more modern American wear later, are pleasing to look at, as are the blue, red, purple, white and yellow dresses adorning the actresses. (Costume designs are by Stephanie Gift and Becky Evans, with hat decorations by Bill Cosentino.) It’s also pleasant to hear some of the familiar gospel tunes, like Wade in the Water and I’m on the Battlefield for My Lord, although too often we only hear snippets and the numbers don’t really rev into high gear.
Both Phyllis Banks and her daughter, Syreeta, do get to put some spirit into a few numbers, though, including His Eye Is on the Sparrow and When I’ve Done the Best I Can I Want My Crown. Edwin Watson has a good presence and energy as the only male in the cast. And Jackson delivers a couple of songs sweetly as her character gradually moves from defiance to acceptance.
Crowns never really touches us as we want it do, though; the stories told feel more repetitive than reinforcing. Perhaps with a little more time (the show runs through April 21) the cast will gain more confidence, if not full clarity.
For tickets call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com.