Theater Review: Encores! Tries to Renovate Cabin in the Sky

Michael Potts ('Little Joe' Jackson) and LaChanze (Petunia Jackson) in Encores!'s Cabin in the Sky. Photo: Joan Marcus

One of the many useful and fascinating things the Encores! series has done over the years — last night’s opening of Cabin in the Sky marks the start of its 23rd season — is to highlight, and in many cases restore, the rich history of black musicals on Broadway. By “black musicals,” I mean musicals with largely black casts or with stories of largely black life: works like St. Louis Woman, Golden Boy, House of Flowers, Purlie, The Wiz, and Lost in the Stars, all of which Encores! has already produced.

Lurking behind that list and achievement is an uncomfortable problem, though. If only The Wiz remains a very viable property today — viable enough to get a live television broadcast last December — it is also the only one that’s predominantly the work of black authors, which leads one to wonder how meaningful a story of black life the others really offer. That question has never been more vividly brought to the fore than by Cabin in the Sky, whose original Broadway production, in 1940, was referred to as “a Negro fantasy.” It did feature an all-black cast, including Ethel Waters and the dancer-choreographer Katherine Dunham, but the book (by Lynn Root, based on his short story), the music (by Vernon Duke), and the lyrics (by John LaTouche) were all by white men. The director and choreographer was none other than George Balanchine, who spoke to his collaborators mostly in Russian. (Duke was born Vladimir Dukelsky, near Minsk.) Actually, the choreography appears to have been a collaboration with Dunham, who received no credit.

The racial makeup of the original creative team would be of less significance if the result were a less icky story, but even as edited by the director Ruben Santiago-Hudson to avoid words like pickaninny, the script is full of faux-naïve folkloric touches that give off a strong odor of condescension today. The premise all but ensures that. Set in a mythical American South untroubled by racism or even much poverty, the very thin tale concerns the gambling, boozing, womanizing “Little Joe” and his upstanding wife Petunia. When Joe, on his deathbed after a knife fight, is about to be consigned to hell, Petunia prays that he be spared for six months so that she can reform him. A lighthearted fight for his soul ensues, with representatives of God seeking to fortify him while representatives of the devil proceed to tempt him with sweepstakes tickets and a hussy named Georgia Brown. The ending is happy if you are Christian enough to believe that getting to heaven is worth it even if it took a gunfight to get there, while dragging your blameless wife along.  

Were this only a play, no one would produce it now; from the evidence of the Encores! staging, it seems hardly to have been producible in 1940. (It ran for four months.) As drama, it is so mild that cringeworthiness may be its strongest trait. But of course it’s not a play, it’s a musical — and that’s where the conflict arises. The score is flat-out lovely, demonstrating Duke’s charm and versatility. Chorale-like passages show off his classical training (he was a protégé of Prokofiev), but many numbers employ the kind of adventurous jazz harmonies that made other songs of his, like “April in Paris,” big hits of the 1930s. Cabin in the Sky has a clutch of them, the most famous being the poppy “Taking a Chance on Love,” but also the swingy “Do What You Wanna Do” and “Love Me Tomorrow,” specialty numbers like “Savannah” and “In My Old Virginia Home,” and the sinuous title song. (Encores! has lifted “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe,” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, from the 1943 movie, which jettisoned Duke’s score.) Because the original instrumental parts were all lost, the show has been given terrific new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick that bind the different styles together. And the score’s indications of traditional spiritual material, including “Dry Bones,” has resulted here in some stupendous arrangements by Linda Twine.

But is a worthwhile score enough to justify the presentation, even in semi-staged version, of a highly compromised work? With enough caveats, the answer may be yes. As lovers of obscure musical theater, the Encores! audience may be trusted to understand such offerings in context, and to glean from them not only whatever ideas the authors intended but also the ideas that history has added. (The double vision that makes the story so uncomfortable may in fact be useful.) And the opportunity to keep black musical artists working, if even on thorny material like this, is not to be gainsaid. That such top-drawer performers as LaChanze (as Petunia), Michael Potts (as Little Joe), Norm Lewis (as the Lord’s General), and Chuck Cooper (as the devil’s son) were available for this production says a lot about the conditions still governing the commercial theater.

And yet a show so problematic cannot ever be totally satisfying. To me, Santiago-Hudson’s staging felt very flat and visually cluttered, emotionally withdrawn as if slightly embarrassed. Despite the plethora of talent in the cast, only Carly Hughes — a newcomer to me —seemed able to break through the fog. As Georgia Brown, who sings a double-entendre specialty called “Honey in the Honeycomb,” she gave off the kind of joy that even the best musical theater has always required to lift it past its built-in limitations. Happily, the choreography, by Camille A. Brown, did, too. It was really only in her vivid and unusual dances, based on contemporary social forms but feeling at the same time oddly angled and modern, that the world of A Cabin in the Sky achieved a specific physical life. She tells her own story, not someone else’s — and, ultimately, that may be the best reason for Encores! to keep exploring the difficult tradition from which A Cabin in the Sky arose. Appropriated stories should eventually be taken back.

Cabin in the Sky is at City Center through February 14.