Some of its musical numbers truly reverberate, but “Shakin’ the Rafters” eventually collapses under the weight of its faulty framework.
A world premiere written, directed and choreographed by David H. Bell for Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre, the show follows a fictional quartet of black sisters and backup gospel singers as they tour churches in the segregated South of the 1950s, uncertainly striking out on their own after the death of the fearful leader of the group, their infamously ill-tempered mother.
The period setting is rife with dramatic possibilities, and the script poses an interesting moral dilemma about whether life on the road is just a “career” for the Davis Sisters or if it’s a higher “calling.” What a cop out, then, that Bell settles for telling a superficial sort of show-biz exposé instead of anything deeper to do with family bonds or personal freedom.
“Shakin’ the Rafters” features several original songs (music by Robert Deason, lyrics by Bell), in addition to a couple of traditional spirituals (“Didn’t It Rain”). The flashy gospel routines that open and close the show (“Walk the Walk” and “The Gospel Road”) are undeniably rousing, and a few quieter ballads resonate with a sweet subtlety that the production otherwise lacks.
Under Deason’s musical direction, Keith Wilson leads a four-piece band. Some members of Bell’s cast are stronger singers than actors: As the brusque eldest sister who takes charge of the group, for example, Chandra Currelley barely bats an eye when the struggling family (dubiously) comes into a small fortune, but then she belts out an impassioned solo all about it.
Others are better actors than singers: LaParee Young, portraying a “shifty” preacher who signs himself on as their new manager and front man, nails an energetic sermon about pocket change with much greater conviction than he does the big musical number it sets up.
Striking the nicest balance is LaTrice Pace, who sensitively plays the most reasonable of the siblings. Her eloquent solo (“Between Trains”) is a definite highlight. So is Adrienne Reynolds’ touching solo (“Willa’s Prayer”), although she sometimes overacts her precious role as the childlike mentally impaired sister. Together, their emotional duet (“Trust in Him”) also scores.
Rounding out the ensemble are D. Woods as the teenaged “baby girl” of the family and Jevares Myrick as her new boyfriend, who wants her to leave the group to pursue her own career singing “devil music” in Nashville. Such tired clichés abound in the show.
As stylish and highly evocative as was “Gut Bucket Blues,” the Bessie Smith musical Bell conceived for True Colors in 2010, the period details and atmosphere in “Shakin’ the Rafters” are surprisingly negligible. The dangerous racial climate of the era is essentially reduced to passing mentions of “colored” train cars and “white” drinking fountains, or an occasional song lyric that rhymes with “Jim Crow.”
The show finally falls apart in the second act, as it opts for easy conflict and sentiment involving the personal relationships between not one or two but three of the sisters and the same man. Adding insult to injury, the script also piles on a couple of other melodramatic plot twists that must be seen to be utterly disbelieved.
However uplifting the music, the end result feels like a rather manipulative low blow.
“Shakin’ the Rafters”
Through Aug. 4. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $15-$60. 14th Street Playhouse, 173 14th St., Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849. www.truecolorstheatre.org.
Bottom line: Musically solid but dramatically unstable.