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Hallelujah, Baby!

by Rich See

Ann Duquesnay & Suzzanne Douglas
(Photo: T Charles Erickson)
Arena Stage's co-production with George Street Playhouse brings Arthur Laurents' Hallelujah, Baby! to Washington area audiences. The interesting aspect of this is that Mr. Laurents has directed the revival and updated it for current times. The cast has been cut in half, a new song by Jule Styne has been added, as well as new orchestrations, and the script has been re-written to reflect societal changes since the show won a Tony Award in 1967. There is much good material here, and while the vocals and performances are excellent, the musical seems somewhat unfocused and sadly lacking in production values considering two theaters have worked together to bring the piece to fruition.

Hallelujah, Baby! covers the past 100 years in American civil rights history, following a young African American woman named Georgina from South Carolina in the early 1900's to an appearance at the White House during the Bush Administration. As Georgina (played by Suzzanne Douglas) states at the outset of the show "I'm twenty-five...give or take." and so, although 100 years passes, all the characters stay the same age with just their situations, costumes, and time periods changing. The first act covers 1900-1940. The second act picks up during World War II and brings us to the current day. Unfortunately the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's are skimmed over in under five minutes and the new century is covered in two.

Jerome Sirlin's set design is very basic and somewhat resembles a game show stage with light-up steps and bright colors flashing. When Ms. Douglas emerges in a sequined gown, at the outset, and sings, the entire effect is like a 1970's variety show or Vegas lounge act. The orchestra is featured in a picture frame which is an inspired effect. Sadly the screen and Power Point-like slides that cover the orchestra for the majority of the play are less than inspired and at points seem almost amateurish. David Lander's lighting is filled with reds which highlight the anger of the African American community. Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes run the gamut of simple to sophisticated and hit the mood of each scene.

Suzzanne Douglas' Georgina is a difficult character to like, however Ms. Douglas shines in the role. She especially comes alive in "Now's the Time" and "My Own Morning." Ann Duquesnay steals the show as Momma and brings down the house with "I Don't Know Where She Got It." Curtiss I' Cook has a stirring voice for the role of Clem, Georgina's love interest, who moves from Pullman train porter to civil rights leader during the course of the show. Stephen Zinnato as the voice of white liberalism adds a note of dry humor and relaxed outsider to the piece. Mr. I' Cook's and Mr. Zinnato's voices blend well in "Same Boat" and "Not Mine." In smaller roles, but each adding wonderful moments, are Randy Donaldson, Gerry McIntyre, Laurie Gamache, Todd Cerveris, and Crystal Noelle.

The most interesting aspect of Hallelujah, Baby! is the anger within the characters and the idea of personal empowerment. As Georgina keeps searching for her "own door," and acceptance of herself by white society, Clem continuously tells her to look beyond her own needs to the greater needs of society and to creating her own self-acceptance. This is a message that everyone can take away with them regardless of their racial or ethnic background.

Hallelujah, Baby!
Book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, additional lyrics by Amanda Green
Directed by Arthur Laurents
with Suzzanne Douglas, Randy Donaldson, Gerry McIntyre, Ann Duquesnay, Curtiss I' Cook, Stephen Zinnato, Laurie Gamache, Todd Cerveris, Crystal Noelle
Musical Direction/Orchestrations and additional vocal arrangements by David Alan Bunn
Choreography: Hope Clarke
Set and Projection Design: Jerome Sirlin
Lighting Design: David Lander
Costume Design: Theoni V. Aldredge
Sound Design: Shannon Slaton
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW
Telephone: 202-488-3300
TUE, WED, & SUN @7:30, THU - SAT @8, SAT-SUN @2; $47 - $66
Opening 12/10/04, closing 02/13/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 12/16/04 performance
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