When I went to see Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of Crowns by Regina Taylor, I didn’t know quite what to expect; but what I found was that it was the best musical I’d seen in years. When I think about musical theater, I usually think about sadness. I think about ballads about death, about fighting in a society that will never help you, and about not being safe in the skin you live in.
It’s not like Crowns doesn’t have or deal with any of those aspects. There are songs about loss, there are stories about love and pain and everything else, but this musical was different. The most powerful thing about Crowns is that Regina Taylor instead turns the focus onto joy. Crowns is a joyful musical that celebrates generations of black women finding their place through their communities and the hats they’re going to wear that week.
It’s not a complicated premise, women telling stories about how they found their place through the hats they bought and wore, but it’s very powerful. So powerful, that in the sold-out performance that I attended, when the pastor sang “Amen,” so did the audience. All through the show, I could feel claps, stomps, and chords of shared memory reverberating through the whole theater. It’s not just the writing, from costume design to music to the acting itself — it’s a full package.
Shannon Clark’s scenic design was an effective but clean way of transitioning between the church and various other locations. Using a couple of pew units, hanging windows, pulpits, and stairs helped translate between the various stories and locations. I particularly loved the wood grain on the pews and the choice to place the musicians visibly behind the scrim. This choice allowed the lighting designer Jeremy Diamond to light up the cyc (cyclorama) backdrop with various colors to match the mood of the scene. Diamond, paired with every other aspect of the production, was able to make the stage pictures look even better. The lighting design, plus the vibrant costumes, made for a beautiful show.
From the perfectly picked hats to the dresses the actors were wearing, the costume designs by Vicki Olson were pitch perfect. The costumes were perfectly tailored to each of the actors and informed each of their characters. In addition, the starkly different and beautiful colors enriched the story.
In addition, Todd Houseknecht’s sound design was great by virtue that it was barely noticeable at all. The atmospheric sound felt realistic; and although I could see the mics on actor’s faces, the sound design was so subtle that it felt like all the vocals were really larger than life.
Terra Hodge’s direction, paired with the seamless musical direction by Carolyn Colquitt, is something amazing. Hodge manages to make the structure, and the monologues leading into musical numbers, anything but boring. Each of the actors, and the relationships they build, keep the audience engaged the whole time. Colquitt, also playing the keyboard throughout the show, got some amazing musical performances out of the actors. Every aspect of the music felt right, and every time that you hear her and Bernard Clark, the percussionist, start to play, you knew you are going to hear something good. In addition, I loved the choreography by Brenda Hayes. In particular, the dance breaks throughout the show were some of the most enjoyable pieces of choreography that I’ve ever seen.
Mother Shaw, played by Lynette Barber, blew me away, not only as an actress but as a singer. She had a strong powerful presence, and her character’s worship songs were as earth shattering and moving as the dialogue set us up to believe.
India Williams, as Mabel, was the warm, comedic center of the show. In every number she was in, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. The faces she was pulling and the relationships she had built with each of the characters were compelling and hilarious.
Chanda Branch, as Velma, had great comedic timing not only in each of her zingers but in physical comedy as well. Every time she had a chance to sing, her talent and passion seemed to overwhelm her and the audience. At some moments, she became so overtaken by the passion, her legs seemed to give way. Seeing her singing with such passion while her body was supported by other characters felt like a religious experience itself.
Aya Wallace’s Wanda was also a favorite. She had strong stage presence; and her blunt, quick sense of comedy made her a character that I wanted to see again and again.
LaToya Smith, as Jeanette, has great comedic timing, presence and built great relationships with each of the characters. I loved hearing her story about her “crowns,” and particularly her comedic work fanning herself and others during the church scenes.
Joshua Johnson, as Man, served as the men in each of the women’s lives. He was a versatile and strong performer who moved through the roles with ease, making distinct characters for these countless men. He also kept up with the cast full of amazing vocals, wowing the audience with his amazing vocals in songs like “I’m Gonna Roll On” and ” “Take My Life and Let It Be.”
Chelsea Moore, as the main character Yolanda, had amazing character growth; and it was so emotionally fulfilling to see her journey onstage. Hearing the stories of her brother, and seeing her actively moved as she absorbed the other women’s stories, made her a great character to follow.
I often found myself looking to Chelsea Moore to see how her character was reacting to these stories. As she progresses and finds her own place in the world of Crowns, it’s gonna be hard for you not to be reaching for your tissues. She gives a strong, and often hilarious, performance that is incredibly valuable.
Overall, Crowns is a must see. From design elements, to music, to the strength of the acting — it is nothing short of an experience. Although it has its fair share of sadness and pain, the celebration of the history of crowns and shared experience makes it different from any other musical that you will see this year. Whether you relate to these women or not, it is so important that you hear their stories. So, my advice is, grab your tickets while you still can and listen.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 28th Raleigh, NC ArtsNow staff report: http://www.artsnownc.com/rlts-crowns-extended-plus-meet-contest-winners/ and July 1st blog by Yolanda W. Rabun: http://www.artsnownc.com/why-our-crown-is-a-big-part-of-african-american-culture/; Aug. 28th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article169835657.html; Aug. 27th Raleigh, NC Talkin’ Broadway: Raleigh/Durham review by Garrett Southerland: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/rd/rd27.html; Aug. 26th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8600; Aug. 26th Raleigh, NC SobeSavvy review by Leslie Heigh: https://sobesavvy.com/2017/08/26/opening-night-reviewhats-off-to-crowns%F0%9F%91%92-now-playing-rlt1936-thru-910-in-raleigh-get-tix-now/; Aug. 23rd Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/crowns/Event?oid=7325327; Aug. 23rd Hillsborough, NC WHUP/104.7 FM community-theater previews for “Lights Up!”: https://whupfm.org/episode/lights-up-82317-permanent-archive/; Aug. 22nd Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with director Terra Hodge and actors Lynnette Barber and Chelsey Moore, plus N.C. State University history professor Blair L.M. Kelley, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/post/hat-queens-attitude-reign-crowns-gospel-musical; and Aug. 20th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com video preview on “Spiritual Awakening”: http://www.wral.com/entertainment/video/16893245/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 27th Triangle Review review by Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/08/we-tip-our-hats-to-everyone-involved-with-crowns-at-raleigh-little-theatre/.)
Raleigh Little Theatre presents CROWNS at 8 p.m. Aug. 31-Sept. 2, 3 p.m. Sept. 3, 8 p.m. Sept. 7-9, 3 p.m. Sept. 10, 8 p.m. Sept. 15 and 16, and 3 p.m. Sept. 17 in RLT‘s Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $28 ($24 students and seniors 62+).
BOX OFFICE: 919-821-3111 or https://raleighlittletheatre.secure.force.com/.
SHOW: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/crowns/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/225232124664258/.
RLT‘S 2017-18 SEASON: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/tickets/memberships.html.
PRESENTER: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/RaleighLittleTheatre, https://twitter.com/RLT1936, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raleigh_Little_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/raleighlittletheatre.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices are available for all shows. RLT has also installed a hearing loop in the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre.
NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 3rd, performance.
NOTE 3: U.S. Rep. Alma S. Adams, Ph.D. (D-12th Congressional District), who was interviewed for the book on which Crowns is based, in the will participate in the post-show discussion after the gospel musical’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10th performance.
Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats (2000 coffee-table book): http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/35685/crowns-by-michael-cunningham-and-craig-marberry/9780385500869/ (Penguin Random House).
Michael Cunningham (photographer): http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/6172/michael-cunningham (Penguin Random House).
Craig Marberry (author): http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/37221/craig-marberry (Penguin Random House).
Crowns (2002 Off-Broadway gospel musical): http://crownsthegospelmusical.com/ (official website), http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=3220 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/1704 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
Study Guide: http://www.reginataylor.com/crownsStudyGuide.pdf (The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, MO).
Regina Taylor (Dallas, TX-born actress, director, and playwright): http://reginataylor.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/2539 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/regina-taylor-109792 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0853040/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regina_Taylor (Wikipedia).
Terra Hodge (director and theatre arts teacher at Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill): https://www.facebook.com/terra.hodge.7 (Facebook page).
Katy Koop is a writer, comedic actor, and stage manager based in Cary, NC. As a freelance writer, her work has been published by Later, Femsplain, and Hello Giggles. When she’s not writing or involved in a local production, she’s tweeting under the handle @katykooped. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.