Encores! - Cabin in the Sky
In recent weeks I have made the argument on this blog for revisiting older and perhaps forgotten musicals. There is still gold to be mined from these wonders of yesteryear and that is why I was so excited, after years of reading about them, to finally witness my first staged concert of a forgotten musical at New York City Center’s Encores! series. As a theatre historian who has just moved to the Big Apple, there is no better way to experience the 1940 musical Cabin in the Sky, a most deserving choice of their attention. Vernon Duke's and John Latouche's vibrant, jazz-infused score lives and breathes again reminding us that, just because a musical has been gone for half-a-century (and change), that it need not be forgotten.
Cabin in the Sky originally opened on Broadway in 1940 with a book by Lynn Root. Directed and choreographed by dancer extraordinaire George Balanchine, the production was both innovative and a crowd-pleaser, running a solid 156 performances at the (then) Martin Beck Theatre. The cast featured some of theatre’s finest black performers of the day including Ethel Waters, Todd Duncan and Dooley Wilson. In 1943, Cabin in the Sky received a film adaptation indicative of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer which basically kept the shell of the plot, but many of the songs were excised and a few new songs were written. The film also represented the Hollywood directing debut of Vincente Minnelli.
This is a musical that, for all intents and purposes, has sat fallow for a reason, having received its last major production in 1960. The book renders the show dated and its premise is a bit silly and strained. It’s top-notch score, however, supersedes any of this and deserves to be heard. Encores! had a real challenge resurrecting Cabin in the Sky for their series because not much was left of the original orchestral score. In fact, they applied grant monies allocated for score restoration to this project. Working from an old script and a piano conductor’s score, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick has lovingly and adeptly taken the framework and reconstructed complete orchestrations for Cabin in the Sky. This effort has yielded some truly wonderful results and one hopes that a record producer will generously step in and preserve this production for posterity. It needs and begs to be.
Composer Vernon Duke is one of those theatre musicians who have always sat on the periphery of the theatre business, working in a time where he was passed the torch of the jazz/blues flavors of George Gershwin but who also exploring a classical career of his own. Indeed, Duke and Harold Arlen were the heirs-apparent to Gershwin and these two composers came the closest to not only capturing the full sounds of jazz, swing, blues and gospel, but in celebrating the music of the African-American experience as a whole through their style and interests. Arlen would prove to have the more successful career in musical theatre and film, but Duke found great success as a songwriter for standards of the day and also did well on the musical stage in his own right. Arlen and Duke also worked with many of the same contemporaries including E.Y. Harburg, Ira Gershwin and Howard Dietz. They were cut from a similar cloth.
The pairing of Duke with lyricist John Latouche brings a special brand of magic to Cabin in the Sky. Latouche is a whimsical poet with just enough irony and sly wit in his machinations that the duo’s combined magic never becomes bloated or heavy-handed. Latouche’s best lyrics are to be found in the 1954 musical The Golden Apple (to Jerome Moross’s music), but Cabin in the Sky is a close second. For 1940, he is clearly inspired by his contemporaries such as Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter, but he employs earthier imagery and a tart tang to the flow of his words. They are to be administered with just a slight sting that is both bracing and intoxicating. It’s a very original voice that works deliciously in tandem with Duke’s smoky and sultry music.
Lynn Root’s book is corny fun, filled with the loose plot structure and character development that was indicative of musical comedies written in the late 1930s/early 1940s. It opens with the character of “Little Joe” Jackson (Michael Potts) on his death bed as his wife Petunia (LaChanze) prays over his prone body, begging God for just six-months more with her husband. Little Joe has been a rotten husband, a gambler and a philanderer. As his wife prays, he converses with the servants of both the Lord (The Lord’s General played by Norm Lewis) and of Satan (The Head Man played by Chuck Cooper) who are in a bidding war for the troubled man’s soul. Due to the strength of her convictions, it is agreed that Petunia’s prayers will be answered and she will be given six-months more with her husband. In that time, Little Joe has to either earn his way into heaven or be cursed to hell for all eternity. To keep it interesting, his memory will be washed clean and both sides are free to influence his decision making. The rest of the musical is a string of scenarios where Joe is tempted by sin, often in the guise of Carly Hughes’ “Sweet Georgia Brown”, the woman with whom Joe has been having an affair. He does his best, however, with the guidance of his wife, to walk the straight and narrow.
A terrific ensemble is the beating heart and binding fabric of any good production. Cabin in the Sky at Encores! is blessed with a crackerjack band of singers and dancers who make the most of every moment, movement and morsel they are given. The show is lifted high into the air with their show-stopping rendition of “Dry Bones”, a symphony of cacophony that rattles and shakes with awe-inducing splendor when it is married to Camille A. Brown’s inventive choreography. Indeed, Brown has given the ensemble so much exciting movement that anytime they are singing and dancing it becomes a highlight of the show. The musical’s climactic number “Savannah” explodes (there is no better word for it) and the show’s mediocre book is given a much-needed final thrust as Brown manipulates the dancers across the floor to Little Joe’s and Petunia’s penultimate death. It’s exhilarating and brimming with tension.
Michael Potts as Little Joe is both affable and believable, the perfectly flawed man who wants to do right by his wife, but who is swarmed by temptation. It’s the devotion and piety of his hardworking wife Petunia that is the strongest force in his life, and Tony-winning actress LaChanze easily colors her in with shades of optimism and skepticism. LaChanze, who is always a strong asset to any production, soars here, especially in her renditions of the show’s two best-known numbers “Taking a Chance on Love” and “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” (written for the film by E. Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen). She exudes an inner light and positive energy that makes us pull for Petunia and her goal to reform her husband. As the temptress Sweet Georgia Brown, Carly Hughes is a firecracker of seduction, dripping with libido and making the most of her big number “Honey in the Honeycomb.” Chuck Cooper, representing Satan with devilish charm and sinful sarcasm, floods the stage with bravado and bombast as The Head Man. Two of his big numbers, “Little Papa Satan” and “Do What You Wanna Do” are joyous tips of the hat toward the brazen styles of comic vaudeville. Norm Lewis, as the Lord’s General, wraps his pleasant, spectral voice around “The Man Upstairs” and highlights the kernels of irony in “It’s Not So Bad to Be Good”. Marva Hicks also provides some powerhouse vocals on the musical’s opening number “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water” with stunning support from the ensemble that makes everyone wonder what could possibly top it.
Cabin in the Sky is helmed by director Ruben Santiago-Hudson who has courageously taken on the task of guiding this forgotten piece toward what comes close to being a full-scale revival. Understanding that the story is negligible, Santiago-Hudson wisely keeps the pace brisk and the focus on the hypnotic pulse of the divine score. When the plot begins to fall apart, he works close with the choreographer to use visuals to keep the piece buoyed, building to the show’s finale, utilizing the music as the magic carpet on which everything rides to its end. Cabin in the Sky may not have the happiest of conclusions (the title implies a little home in heaven), but this production is about anything but death. Not only is Cabin in the Sky life-affirming, it is life resuscitated, not just in its story but through Encores!'s miraculous resurrection. Go see it.