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Intimate “Marie and Rosetta” at the Northlight Theater


From “Tina – Tina Turner Musical” with “Personality: Lloyd Price MusicalChicago audiences had several opportunities this year to explore the stories of the Black pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll. “Marie and Rosetta,” currently playing at the Northlight Theatre, harks back to the 1940s, when gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, known as “The Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” played guitar and sang soulful duets. with Marie Knight.

Written by George Brant and directed by the accomplished Chicago actor. E. Faye Butler, this two-handed play with music is a more intimate affair than your typical jukebox musical. Starring Bethany Thomas as Rosetta and Alexis J. Roston as Marie, the show celebrates not only the relentless talents of these two women, but also the loving bond that has formed between them. It’s a slow-burn game, sneaking around your heartbeat, then giving it a strong pull.

While Sister Rosetta Tharpe is no longer a household name, her legacy was left behind by her untimely death at the age of 58. Bob Dylan and others with a mix of gospel music, swing beats and electric guitar.

When the lights come on on stage, Rosetta is in her early 30s and is already a gospel star. The year is 1946, and the talented young singer whom Rosetta discovered performing in a quartet signed on with a new touring partner named Marie. Two musicians rehearse and spend the night at a friend’s funeral home. As Rosetta explained to Marie, being a famous singer doesn’t make it easy to tour Mississippi as a Black woman; she hires a white bus driver and stays wherever she can find lodgings on the “Good Samaritan Circuit”.

Throughout the evening, the two women get to know each other by chatting and playing and singing together. Despite their age difference and different life experiences, they have a clear chemistry. Already a mother, Marie is married to a preacher and is skeptical of Rosetta’s cross-call to both church congregations and nightclub crowds. No less faithful but with a more open, upbeat approach to the art form, Rosetta helps Marie unwind and add some momentum to her music.

Thomas and Roston shine in these musically demanding roles, with Thomas’ blues tone and pebbly low notes complementing Roston’s soaring vibrato and clarion riffs. Music director and pianist Morgan E. Stevenson and guitarist Larry Brown accompany offstage as the actors imitate their instruments. I have rarely seen this arrangement work so well; Thomas and Brown in particular were so in tune that I had to check my schedule to make sure there was an offstage guitarist.

Not only do they sound great, the ladies in the lead also look stunning in McKinley Johnson’s costumes; Thomas in a shimmering floor-length dress and Roston in a high-neck metallic A-line dress. Jared Gooding provides subtle light changes during songs against the largely white backdrop of John Culbert’s set. Although we only see Marie and Rosetta at rehearsal, the lighting makes us imagine what they would look like in concert.

The toe-tapping songs punctuate witty, warm dialogue that often keeps the tempo on a show that lasts nearly two hours without a break. The two women talk about the ups and downs of their marriage, and Marie shares her conflicting feelings about leaving her two children behind to go on tour. At a time when women’s work outside the home is less common, this raw discussion of motherhood then becomes an important plot.

Alexis J. Roston and Bethany Thomas "Marie and Rosetta" At the Northlight Theatre.

The late game has a shocking twist that would be a shame to spoil, but I will say that this paradigm shift puts the whole show in a different light. Frankly, it had been a long time since I had shed such an unexpected tear in a theater. I could hear from the audience around me that I was not the only one who was so affected by the final moments of the play, which was directed and acted with compassion.

Born in Arkansas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe made her debut in Chicago, playing a solo at the 40th Street Church of God in Christ in 1921, when she was just 6 years old. More than a century later, her music and the story of her precious relationship with Marie Knight are being revived for a new generation at the Northlight Theatre.

Emily McClanathan is an independent critic.

Review: “Marie and Rosetta” (3.5 stars)

When: By August 13

Where: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes

Tickets: $30-89 at 847-673-6300 or northlight.org


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