By William Wolf

HALLELUJAH, BABY!  Send This Review to a Friend

There are various reasons to see the York Theatre Company’s concert-style revival of the musical “Hallelujah, Baby” as part of its Musicals in Mufti series. A major one is the smashing performance by Stephanie Umoh in the central role of Georgina. Seeing her reconfirms my enthusiasm for her artistry.

When I saw her in the York’s presentation of “Jerry’s Girls,” I took pleasure in writing: “Umah has what it takes to become a major star. She has terrific stage presence, power and acting ability, and she pulls it all together when she sings “I am What I Am,” an exciting rendition of the coming-out anthem from ‘La Cage Aux Folles.’ She demonstrates that the impassioned musical statement can be as strong and meaningful coming from a woman as from a man.”

Umoh’s performance in “Hallelujah, Baby” adds to the belief that she deserves major stardom if given the opportunity. As Georgina, a woman from the South who aspires to a stage career, she sparkles with charisma, enhanced by a powerful voice as she delivers such impressive numbers as “My Own Morning,” “Talking to Yourself” and “Now’s The Time.”

The show itself, originally on Broadway in 1967 with Leslie Uggams as Georgina, has an excellent score by Jule Styne, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, additional lyrics by Amanda Green and book by Arthur Laurents. It is a work that definitely merits a fresh look.

The book, although sometimes a bit clunky, cleverly spans decades, starting just before World War I, with the characters going through the decades as if the same age. Georgina makes this concept clear at the start. The musical proceeds to examine through the show biz idiom the battle for African-American rights over the years at various levels, as reflected by what the characters endure in the framework of Georgina’s striving for success.

There is, of course, the requisite love story, in this case her on-and-off affection for Clem (Jarran Muse), an African-American who becomes politically radicalized, and the competing attraction for the white Harvey (Tally Sessions), who helps her climb the ladder to success. Muse and Sessions are excellent and appealing in their roles, both in acting and singing.

Further spice is added by Vivian Reed as Georgina’s nagging Momma, starting with satirizing the need to smile in subservient maid occupations to please the white folks. Reed later has her breakout, show-stopping moment in the second act when she tears into the song, “I Don’t Know Where She Got It.”

Randy Donaldson and Bernard Dotson add enjoyment as Tap and Tip, who capture the kind of tap routines that light up show numbers. Other cast members contributing skillfully are Jennifer Cody, Michael Thomas Holmes and Latoya Edwards. Musical direction is by David Hancock Turner, who is at the piano, with Richie Goods on bass, both doing an amazing job as the “Orchestra” playing Styne’s score.

The overall direction is by Gerry McIntyre, who deserves credit for whipping the musical into shape with about a week’s rehearsal. As with other Mufti productions, performers hold scripts due to the short time for memorizing lines. That doesn’t intrude on the oomph that they manage to convey throughout.

“Hallelujah, Baby!” is more than a curio interesting to revive. It was certainly a product of its time with respect to the civil rights movement, and the score by Styne is special. As Charles Wright points out in his program notes, the show on Broadway won Tonys for Best Musical, Best Actress (a tie), Best Original Score and Best Featured Actress, and it had a host of nominations. The show had a brief tour in 1968 with Diana Sands as Georgina. Laurents revised the book in 2004, and, as Wright reports, “He asked Amanda Green to create lyrics to supplement those by her late father and Betty Comden.” That version was presented at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J. and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The updated version is what we are now seeing at the York (January 27-February 4).

Note: One can listen to a CD of songs from the original 1967 show in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound at the New York Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

The York has two more shows in its current Mufti series—“Bar Mitzvah Boy” (February 10-18) and “Subways Are for Sleeping” (February 24-March 4). At the York Thatre at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue (at 54th Street). Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed January 29, 2018.


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