Amid some major snafus opening night, the El Rey Theatre reopened as a legit playhouse with “Sang Sista’ Sang,” a musical with a dull and preachy book, some good music and five great voices.
Even with much going against it, “Sang” has shining moments — all in the singing, not in the story.
The minimal plot, by songwriter Mickey Stevenson (“Devil With the Blue Dress, “”Dancing in the Street”), has five late, great women singers in limbo between heaven and hell.
Bessie Smith (Patricia Hodges), Billie Holiday (J’ai), Dinah Washington (B’anca), Josephine Baker (Stefani Spruill) and Mahalia Jackson (Tanya Montgomery) discover they are dead, and try to sort out why they are together.
Without any clues or help, they decide they’re supposed to show off their special gifts from God, and to stand as examples of people who overcame repression “from a place and time when a woman was thought of as someone who couldn’t do anything.”
Stevenson offers more of their personalities than their histories. The show explores none of their dreams or fears and only glances at their travails. Hodges as Bessie Smith and Montgomery as Jackson particularly evoke their characters’ strong demeanor. J’ai and B’anca also do well, all aided by Lonny Stevens’ direction.
Spruill’s Baker, however, comes across as such a parody — clearly intended by writer Stevenson and director Stevens — that the performance is painful to watch. The mockery has its purpose, to eventually show the “real” Baker, but by that time, she’s highly unlikable.
Those who come to hear the songs that made these women great will be disappointed. Other than two quick medleys and Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” the music is all new.
Nonetheless, Stevenson as composer shows much craft, allowing the women’s voices to soar. Vocal arrangements by Ronnie Hasley and music arrangements by Hiroshi Upshur and Greg Middleton also assist in showcasing the singers’ talents.
The songs “Walk a Mile,””He Was My Love” and “Black Man” stand particularly well on their own.
On opening night, show started 35 minutes late, and occasional sound and lighting problems intruded. Presumably, all problems have been ironed out by now.