A charmer of a well-cast little musical has found its way into the small Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Signature Center. “Sweetee” has book, music and lyrics by Gail Kriegel and is directed and choreographed by veteran Patricia Birch. Best of all it has in the title role Jordan Tyson, a highly appealing actress with a dynamic, infectious voice. She is worth a special trip and so is this standout show. The action takes place in the bigoted South between 1936 and 1942.
The plot is a stretch but the performers, Birch’s astute staging in a very limited space and the appeal of the score dominate. Sweetee is the mixed race daughter of a poverty-stricken, alcoholic white mother, Violet (Katy Blake), who touchingly sings the title song, turns tricks to survive and has an untimely death. Sweetee has strong instincts for her own survival and is enticed to join a group of minority orphans guided by the white Reverend Dan (Jeremiah James), who passionately tries to help orphaned youngsters get a leg up in life. He is married to Hannah (Katherine Weber), who has trouble keeping up with his policy of putting his self-sacrificing mission first.
The young folks we meet quickly win us over with their down-home-style, jazzy music, which flashes authenticity and highlights their personalities. Sweetee brings fresh energy, and there is further inspiration when the group encounters Cat Jones (Jelani Alladin), who sees promise in the music makers and wants to see them leave the South and make it to gigs in New York. As one can expect, there are romantic sparks between the charismatic Cat and Sweetee. As one can also expect, the good Reverend Dan develops the hots for Sweetee.
The musical thrives on covering lots of geographical territory with a sense of movement ingeniously provided by director/choreographer Birch. The set design by Tim Mackabee is very simple with a a large segregationist sign sprawled as background. Crates used for furniture and other objects are moved about by cast members.
There is some doubling up in supporting roles, and the overall effect is that of an ensemble banding together to tell a story that is essentially one of survival in the face of poverty and dangerous racism in a South, with its ingrained past and resistance to change during the period in which the story is set. The talented cast includes Adante Carter, Hugh Cha, Morgan Siobhan Green and Amir Royale as the orphans, and also Cedric Cannon and Dave Droxler. There is an excellent band that includes conductor Joshua Zecher-Ross, associate conductor Doug Katsaros, John Carlos Feliciano on bass, Daniel Glaude on clarinet and Paul Tafoya on trumpet.
Ultimately the plot highlights recovered love between the previously split Sweetee and Cat, expressed in their duet “I Think I Remember,” and also the desire for reunion between the Reverend Dan and his wife Hannah as expressed in Hannah’s solo, “Maybe Start Again.” The love aspects may be clichéd, but there is an overall spirit that ignites, and a good feeling emerges when the company gathers for a singing finale. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed June 2, 2017.