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Sparkle: The Musical

Doo-wop and clever direction make this schlock-movie musical a pleasure. The plot is sentimental, the humor cornball, the racial and gender attitudes Stone Age, the rags-to-riches story irony-free and the morality stern -- but hey, it's the '50s.

Doo-wop and clever direction make this schlock-movie musical a pleasure. The plot is sentimental, the humor cornball, the racial and gender attitudes Stone Age, the rags-to-riches story irony-free and the morality stern — but hey, it’s the ’50s. Adapted from a 1976 movie that made a major splash in the African-American community, “Sparkle: The Musical” is a cheery crowd-pleaser.

It’s Harlem, 1959. Open-faced kids jump rope, laughing and singing, hoping to make a success of their lives with music. Sister (Lizz Fields, with a knockout figure and a voice nearly to match) is the oldest, and she wants out. She also wants all the usual stuff — cars, jewelry, furs — and will trade sex for success. Wicked men, especially the slick, violent Satin (understudy Darren Herbert, playing with much style at the performance reviewed), lead her to drugs, blacken her eyes and set her on the road to ruin.

Her younger sisters sing backup for her at the Apollo. Dolores (Nikiya Mathis) ditches showbiz as well as Harlem and heads south for the civil rights movement (which gets kicked to the curb in this show as just too dull and dorky to matter); the other sister, Sparkle (Amina Robinson), is the sweet one, and “Sparkle” ends when she plays Carnegie Hall.

Various boyfriends, mothers and turns of plot clutter matters up, but eventually the good triumph and the bad guys — drug dealers, gamblers, fools of every stripe — lose. Characters say lines like, “Livin’ without dreams ain’t livin’ at all.” This is a righteous show.

There are some fine voices in the ensemble — especially Sharon Gary-Dixon’s breathtaking three-octave rendition of the hymn “Precious Lord.” Fine acting is in scarcer supply, however, and the proceedings often descend into the stilted and the cliched. None of these characters is actually a fully developed person, and so the many events of the plot never involve us emotionally.

More shoobie-doo and fewer lines such as “I been livin’ in Harlem all my life — I guess I know a rat when I see one” would seem to be the solution here: The script is too long and too predictable, even for those who haven’t seen the movie.

Sparkle: The Musical

Freedom Theater, Philadelphia; 299 seats; $34 top

  • Production: A Freedom Theater presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Ntozake Shange, adapted from the film written and directed by Joel Schumacher, and songs by Curtis Mayfield. Directed by Walter Dallas.
  • Crew: Choreography, Patricia Scott Hobbs. Set, Lewis Folden; costumes, Andre Harrington; lighting, Ves Weaver; sound, Kelley Scott; music direction, Evan Solot; vocal direction, Renee Robinson; production manager, Curtis Hodge; stage manager, Chris Whelan. Opened April 25, 2001. Reviewed April 29. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Sparkle - Amina Robinson Levi - David Hoxter Sister - Lizz Fields Stixx - Kamal Bostic-Smith Dolores - Nikiya Mathis Effie - Sharon Gary-Dixon Satin - Douglas Barnes <B>With:</B> Lawrence Stallings, Marilyn Brewington, Demetria Bailey, Kala Lynn Moses, John Canada Terrell, John Stinson.
  • Music By: