Monday, September 26, 2016

Off-Broadway Review: Marie and Rosetta

A Fast, Fierce Friendship Plays a New Kind of Gospel Sound
By Lauren Yarger
Gospel legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis), who was a big influence on the music of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis, commands the stage once again in Marie and Rosetta, George Brant’s delightful play with music presented Off-Broadway by Atlantic Theatre Company.

We join Rosetta and her protégée, Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones), as they reflect on how they met and teamed up to become one of the greatest duets in musical history. Tharpe, the queen of “race records” in the 1930s and ’40s, performed mornings at churches and evenings at the Cotton Club. Her less-conservative-seeming faith and coarse language are at first a challenge for Knight, who wonders whether Sister is “right with God.”

The two form a fast and fierce friendship, however, and realize that only divine blessing could make them sound as good as they do (the women sing and effectively appear to play the guitar and piano under the direction of Neil Pepe and the musical direction of Jason Michael Webb).

For Knight, plucked by the star from a backup group where she never had a chance to try out her voice, this is the start of a whole new career, even if it means leaving her children behind to hit the road. For Tharpe, the young singer’s high voice counters her own and the sound they make together could be her ticket back into the hearts of the gospel music crowd with whom she fell out by trying to interject rock and roll with the spiritual.

“You sing it for me,” Tharpe encourages as Knight is too timid to lend her voice to the jazzed up hymns, “and I’ll church it up for you,’ promising to curb her tendency to bend a lyric or two. When she uses a bad word, she’s quick to apologize to her companion -- and to God in a humorous ritual.

The women bond over having been married unsuccessfully to preachers and by a need to follow their music. That journey takes them to a number of places where singers of color might be accepted on stage, but often are not in restaurants or lodging houses. The meeting here takes place in a funeral home (with the action framed in coffins by Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernández) where they have been offered a place to lay their heads down to sleep, creepy as that thought might be.

Brandt is a gifted storyteller and the 90 minutes without intermission are mesmerizing. I had never heard of this duo by name, though I do know some of Tharpe’s music – “Down By the Riverside,” for example. We immediately feel like we want to know these women better. Brandt includes a satisfying twist in telling the story of how a woman who once was a big enough celebrity to fill a baseball stadium for her third wedding ended up forgotten and buried in an unmarked grave. I felt grateful that Brandt has brought her back to life for us.

That thanks includes powerhouse performances by Lewis (Mother Courage) Jones (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), even though Jones’ voice was sounding a bit strained. The music is heavenly. I felt as though I had attended a worship service.

The limited engagement at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th St., NYC, has been extended through Oct. 16, so see it while you can. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 pm; Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets are $76.50:

Additional credits:
Costume Design by Dede Ayite, Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind, Sound Design by Steve Canyon Kennedy

-- a few minor language issues 

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York. Shifting from reviewing to producing, Yarger owns Gracewell Productions, which produced the Table Reading Series at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT. She trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run. She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She wrote reviews of Broadway and Off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She was a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice president and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (producer of the annual awards ceremony) and a member of The League of Professional Theatre Women, serving as Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter. Yarger was a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2024 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women or people of a certain race are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide, or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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