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A CurtainUp NJ Review
My Grandma Em was a hat queen- Means you own at least one hundred hats On Sunday mornings- Grandma Em got up early to make breakfast and dinner. She liked dinner to be ready when we got back from church. I didn't mind getting up early because I got to watch her dress for church. I loved that. — Wanda
Gabrielle Beckford and company (photo credit: Charles Erickson)
Crowns is back with six beautiful black women, one male and a pair of on-stage musicians in this revised, revamped and remounted version of the musical that premiered at McCarter in 2002. Originally a co-production with the Second Stage, Crowns made its move to New York following its McCarter engagement.(Curtainup's review in NY)

Unfortunately, the story or stories it has to tell have not been re-addressed any better by adding a more pronounced hip-hop-integrated aspect to the gospel and blues music at the show's core. Much of what weakens the impact of this musical pageant about the glory and glorification of hats as written by Regina Taylor is its re-staging by the author.

The cast has been handsomely been costumed and chapeau-d by the brilliant designer Emilio Sosa, but the show looks lost within an odd expressionistic setting by Caite Hevner. Taylor uses dressing up for the glory of God at Sunday's church service as the show's catalyst. Stepping out fashionably on a Sunday has continued as a time-honored tradition within the African-American community.

It is this practice that provided photographer Michael Cunningham and co-writer Craig Marberry with the inspiration for their best-selling book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. In the book, 54 women ranging in age from 22 to 78 are stunningly photographed in black and white. It is their commentary - humorous and sad, thoughtful and insightful - that provides the text in what is basically a coffee table book.

The women played by Shari Addison, Gabrielle Beckford, Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope and Danielle K. Thomas and the one man in the role of a preacher and others played by Lawrence Clayton are observed preparing for church, getting there, and their subsequent participation in a wedding, a funeral and a baptism. Each woman has a turn to step forward to sing and tell an anecdote.

Livened up with some revivalist-styled dancing, choreographed by Dianne McIntyre, the musical puts the spotlight on each woman as she reveals through memories how she got her self-esteem and her love of high fashion. Although the score contains traditional spirituals and gospel music, it also features original compositions by Jaret Landon, Diedre Murray, and Chesney Snow. No matter what is going on center stage, you will be drawn to stage left where both Landon who is on the keyboard and trumpet and the terrific Drumfolk Riddim Specialist David Pleasant are putting on a show of their own.

With many black women coming from a background of domestic servitude, their testimonies are used to celebrate independence and freedom. Dramatizing this mode of expression as a cultural statement and as a compelling piece of dramatic literature is not an easy task. Crowns offers some sweet, nostalgic oral histories and some nice digressions into song and dance, as well as a terrific performance by Gabrielle Beckford as Yolanda a young rebellious girl from Chicago.

The cast of characters makes it clear that the adorned hat represents a reflection of God's blessing as much as it speaks for each individual's personal expression of solidarity with other women of faith — "Our crowns are bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear them."

Under Taylor's restrained and dignified direction, Crowns is hard pressed to rise above the decorative. But, like an unfinished hat, the play had all the trimmings on hand, but no form or structure on which to place it. You could say that Crowns remains as it was fifteen years ago all dressed up with nowhere to go.

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Written and Directed by Regina Taylor
Adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry
Cast: Shari Addison (Mother Shaw), Gabrielle Beckford (Yolanda), Lawrence Clayton (Man), Rebecca E. Covington (Jeanette), Latice Crawford (Velma), Stephanie Pope (Wanda), Danielle K. Thomas (Mabel)
Musicians: Jaret Landon (Piano, Keyboard, Trumpet), David Pleasant (Drumfolk Riddim Specialist
Choreography: Dianne McIntyre
Music Director: Jaret Landon
Original Compositions: Jaret Landon, Diedre Murray, Chesney Snow
Arrangements: Diedre Murray
Set Design: Caite Hevner
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design: Bradley King
Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz
Projection Design: Rasean Dayonte Johnson
Production Stage Manager: Cheryl Mintz
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes no intermission
Matthews Theater at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place
Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.
From 03/13/18 Opened 03/16/18 Ends 04/01/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on Sat. matinee performance 03/17/18

NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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