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A CurtainUp Review
Cabin in the Sky

I don't want to end the conversation; I want to keep it going. . ..but we won't say 'pickaninny,' because that word, today, just takes us out of the play. It stops us
—Director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Cabin in the Sky
Michael Potts and LaChanze (Photo: Joan Marcus) Photo Credit
Cabin in the Sky was never a hugely popular show, not its original 1940 stage production with Lynn Root's book and score by Vernon Duke and lyricist John Latouche, and not in the familiar 1943 film version. Yet with delightful classics like "Taking a Chance on Love" and "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe," and its Balanchine inspired choreography, this all-black musical fantasy has merits and is beautifully revisited as City Center Encores! season opener.

A gospel folk tale places the Lord's guard against the Devil's brigade, battling over the soul of "Little Joe" Jackson. We meet Joe (Michael Potts) lying in bed, near death after an attack in a saloon brawl. Nearby, his God-fearing wife, Petunia (La Chanze) is praying her heart out for his survival. Just as Satan's Head Man (Chuck Cooper) is ready to send Joe's soul to the lower depths, the Lord's General (Norm Lewis) steps in after hearing Petunia's prayers, granting Little Joe another six months to get himself together.

Things start off well and Petunia, knowing the risks, is elated to be "Taking a Chance on Love" but the evil forces are not giving up. They know that Little Joe means well, but in the past, he has succumbed to his weaknesses for gambling, liquor and the local floozy Georgia Brown (Carly Hughes). Now the forces of evil stand ready to thrust temptation at Joe. tempting him with a sweepstakes ticket and a bottle of booze. Coincidentally, Georgia Brown, slinky in Karen Perry's well-fitted femme fatale dresses, just happens by and as she makes her moves on Joe, Petunia arrives home and throws them both out. Thus begins Joe's slippery slide into fancy clothes, a nightclub, bad characters like the town troublemaker, Domino Johnson (Jonathan Kirkland), all leading to a predictable but satisfying ending.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson's accepts the dated corniness of Root's simple good-against-evil conceit, keeping spirits high with likeable characters, hummable tunes and some earthy jive rhythms for a quick and nimble company of dancers.

The book is meager but the music is sublime. "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe" was not in the original stage production. Harold Arlen and YIP Harburg wrote it for Ethel Waters portraying Petunia in the MGM film. While La Chanze does not possessl Waters' silky tone, her bright presence offers a sweet-tempered Petunia who delivers songs with her own compelling power. Michael Potts as the doltish rascal, Little Joe, joins in Petunia's dreams of a happy future with the melodic, "Cabin in the Sky." Little Joe is obviously alluring to the ladies, proven when Carly Hughes offers Georgia Brown's wares in "Honey in the Honeycomb." The competing spiritual ambassadors also have their own moments to shine. Always authoritative, Norm Lewis' baritone as Lord's General resonates with "It's Not So Bad to Be Good" and Chuck Cooper, glammed up as Lucifer, Jr., advises the living to "Do What You Wanna Do." A rousing crowd-pleaser is the gospel-flavored, "Dry Bones," cut from the movie, but fortunately included for the terrific chorus in this production.

The music is theatrically delivered by Rob Berman and a full orchestra, thrilling right from the overture, painting the show in musical colors of jazz, classic and gospel with fantastic orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Choreography by Camille A. Brown glances back to the seductive and sophisticated inspirations of Balanchine including an "Egyptian Ballet" and a low-down saloon sequence with slow dances, jump-and-jive and a vigorous rumba to the specialty number, "Savannah."

Musically, Encores! imaginative production of Cabin in the Sky rates five-stars.

Cabin in the Sky
Book: Lynn Root
Music: Vernon Duke
Lyrics: John Latouche
Director: Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Cast: Harvy Blanks Chuck Cooper Marva Hicks Carly Hughes Jonathan Kirkland LaChanze Norm Lewis Forrest McClendon Michael Potts J.D. Webster, Denisha Ballew Darius Barnes Chloe Davis Timothy L. Edwards Doug Eskew Carmen Ruby Floyd Andre Garner Nkrumah Gatling Rebecca L. Hargrove Bahiyah Hibah Andrea Jones-Sojola Jared Joseph Kristolyn Lloyd Tiyany Mann Sydney Morton Mayte Natalio Wayne Pretlow Malaiyka Reid Devin L. Roberts Willie Smith III Jay Staten Dennis Stowe Nicholas Ward Hollie E. Wright
Music Director: Rob Berman
Choreographer: Camille A. Brown
Costume Design: Karen Perry
Set Design: Anna Louizos
Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Sound Design: Scott Lehrer
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Production Stage Manager, Adam John Hunter
Running Time: Two hours.
Theatre: City Center. 131 W 55th St (btwn 6th & 7th) 
Tickets: Start at $25. Tickets at or (212) 212-581-1212
Performances: Wed - Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun. 2pm.
Opens: 2/10/16. Closes 2/14/16
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on press performance 2/14/16
"God's Gonna Trouble the Water" – Gospel Choir
"Little Papa Satan" – Head Man and Little Joe
"The General's Entrance" -- Orchestra
"The Man Upstairs" – The General
"Taking A Chance on Love" – Petunia
"Cabin in the Sky" – Little Joe and Petunia
"Dem Bones" – Gospel Choir
"Do What You Wanna Do" – The Head Man and the Henchmen
"Finale, Act One" – The Company
"The Feud" – Head Man, General & Angels and Henchmen
"Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe" – Petunia
"In My Old Virginia Home (On the River Nile) – Little Joe
"Egyptian Ballet" -- Orchestra
"It's Not So Bad to Be Good" – The General
"Love Me Tomorrow" – Georgia Brown and Little Joe
"Love Turned the Light Out" -- Petunia
Jive Number – Piano Special and Orchestra
Honey in the Honeycomb -- Georgia
Savannah -- Petunia
Fight Music/The Storm/General's Benediction – Orchestra and The General
General's Approach Music -- Orchestra
Cabin in the Sky (reprise) – Little Joe, Petunia, & Ensemble & Choir
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