Review: ‘Cabin in the Sky’ at Encores! at City Center in New York City

I’d seen the film, but never the musical on which it was based. The original, with a score by Vernon Duke and John LaTouche, opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway in 1940 and only managed a run of 158 performances. A subsequent tour took it to Los Angeles, where it attracted the attention of MGM, and a film was put into motion, but it eliminated most of  the score, and recast all but one of the leading roles.

Michael Potts ('Little Joe' Jackson) and LaChanze (Petunia Jackson). Photo by Joan Marcus.
Michael Potts (‘Little Joe’ Jackson) and LaChanze (Petunia Jackson). Photo by Joan Marcus.

The result was an inexpensive all black film which is mostly remembered for bringing Lena Horne to prominence, though the Broadway star Ethel Waters was first billed. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, popular on the Jack Benny radio show, replaced Dooley Wilson in what is technically the leading role. (the show was first called Little Joe, but Ethel Waters refused to sign on if the title referred to any but the character she played. As Petunia didn’t sound like a hit musical, Cabin in the Sky was an inspired choice).

A big coup for the original Broadway version was the hiring of George Balanchine to direct and choreograph. As he was more familiar with ballet than with black jazz he hired Katherine Dunham to assist him, to play the sexy Georgia Brown, and to use her own dance company as the ensemble. Her dancers figured prominently. Balanchine came up with the shape of the numbers, and Dunham created the steps that would  deliver them. She worked well with the Russian Balanchine.

Norm Lewis (The Lord's General). Photo by Joan Marcus. Cabin in the Sky New York City Center Cast List: Denisha Ballew, Darius Barnes, Chloe Davis, Timothy L. Edwards, Doug Eskew, Carmen Ruby Floyd, André Garner, Nkrumah Gatling, Rebecca L. Hargrove, Bahiyah Hibah, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Jared Joseph, Kristolyn Lloyd, Tiffany Mann, Sydney Morton, Mayte Natalio, Wayne Pretlow, Malaiyka Reid, Devin L. Roberts, Willie Smith III, Jay Staten, Dennis Stowe, Nicholas Ward, Hollie E. Wright Production Credits: Ruben Santiago-Hudson (director) Camille A. Brown (choreography) Rob Berman (music director) Other Credits: Lyrics by: John Latouche Music by: Vernon Duke Book by Lynn Root - See more at: http://www.playbill.com/events/event_detail/cabin-in-the-sky-at-new-york-city-center-381004#sthash.8OQJLxbB.dpuf
Norm Lewis (The Lord’s General). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Rob Berman did his always splendid job of conducting this lively, little known master work, now through the creative efforts of a mighty group of collaborators who have taken a fondly remembered near-miss, or “nervous hit” of a  musical into a mighty event of the 2016 season. From the top, I’m grateful to Jack Viertel for giving the go to this project, which has surpassed our fondest hopes for it.

Often during rehearsals, the director and the composer (both Russian born) would engage in verbal duels, the results of which had to be translated to the cast. Its book did not tell the sort of story 1940 audiences were accustomed to: In it the devil and the Lord both fight for the immortal soul of Little Joe, a sweet little guy who through his married life to Petunia (Ms. Waters) has always found temptation very tempting.

The musical score is fetching and varied, including the popular “Taking a Chance On Love,” the lovely title song, the mischievous swing of “Do What You Want To Do,” and dance music that made good use of the Dunham dancers. The result though was a bit of a mishmash and until Jack Viertel and his Encores! team decided to resurrect it, it’s not had much of a life.

But we owe him, for his gifted staff has given new meaning to the purpose of Encores! They broke all sorts of rules to deliver to us a refurbished, virtually new property, sparkling in every department. They broke only one rule — they allowed the integration of a Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg song, “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” which Arlen wrote for the film because Vernon Duke was unavailable, and because the song was associated with the property as a film.

Reuben Santiago-Hudson was brought in by Encores! to direct and adapt the Lynn Root book, a courageous and creative decision, for his forte has not been musical staging. Jonathan Tunick was given free rein to orchestrate the score, and Camille A. Brown joined to create new dances, as all of the Balanchine-Dunham choreography is gone.

LaChanze, who won a Tony for her work in The Color Purple, is now playing Petunia, and she is radiant. Younger than Ethel Waters, which allows her love for Little Joe to be played more erotically, and once in the course of the play she temporarily loses him to his darker side, she can appear as honky tonk as she pleases to show her adversary Georgia Brown a thing or two.

Norm Lewis and Chuck Cooper are perfectly matched as The Lord’s General and The Head Man (Lucifer, Jr.) and both present their cases for good and evil so deliciously that there is real tension (the musical theatre kind) on stage.
Beautiful work by both of them.

Chuck Cooper (C) and (L to R) Dennis Stowe, Tiffany Mann, and Andrew Garner. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Chuck Cooper (C) and (L to R) Dennis Stowe, Tiffany Mann, and Andrew Garner. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Little Joe is lucky to have Michael Potts to play him, for Mr. Potts’ recurring roles on many TV series as well as in other varied stage vehicles, have given him the experience to make Joe adorable, immature, conflicted because he does want to grow up, and very entertaining. One can readily see why happiness is to Petunia: “a thing called Joe.”

The ensemble contributes enormously, very often a solo artist will pop out from the crowd to electrify us. That certainly happens in “Dry Bones,” a rouser that builds to a thrilling crescendo. The lead female singer, backed by the most gorgeously arranged voices, virtually stops the show. I can’t tell you her name for the program merely states the number is performed by “Ensemble” but if she should happen to read this review, please dear lady, know that it was YOU I am thanking for a memorable moment in a memorable show.

Rob Berman did his always splendid job of  conducting this lively, little known master work, now through the creative efforts of a mighty group of collaborators who have turned a fondly remembered near-miss, or “nervous hit” of a  musical into a mighty event of the 2016 season. From the top, I’m grateful to Jack Viertel for giving the go to this project, which has surpassed our fondest hopes for it.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, and an intermission.

Cabin in the Sky played from February 10-14, 2016 at City Center-131 West 55th Street (between 6th & 7th Avenues), in New York City. For future Encores! information and to purchase tickets, go to their website.

Previous articleReview: ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ at Live Arts Maryland
Next article‘Elevate’ Broadway Revue at Take the Stage at Rockville JCC This Friday-Sunday 2/19-21/16
Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.