Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow

With all the drama and adversity in her life, it's a wonder that Ethel Waters has not been the subject of a biographical play, musical or film before now. While screen treatment might more specifically capture the details of a complex personality and amazing talent, Larry Parr gets the essence in his one-woman play with music.

Ethel Waters - Jannie Jones/Chaundra Cameron

A correction was made to this review on Oct. 18, 2005.

With all the drama and adversity in her life, it’s a wonder that Ethel Waters has not been the subject of a biographical play, musical or film before now. While screen treatment might more specifically capture the details of a complex personality and amazing talent, Larry Parr gets the essence in his one-woman play with music, “Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

The new work completes his trilogy of one-person shows about famous black performers that began in 1991 with “Hi-Hat Hattie,” about Hattie McDaniel, and continued in 1996 with “My Castle’s Rockin’,” about singer Alberta Hunter.

His newest show is the smoothest and most moving of the three as it relates Waters’ hard-scrabble beginnings in 1896 as the daughter of a 12-year-old rape victim who became an alcoholic and was essentially incapable of raising a child. In her early years on what she calls a whore’s alley in Philadelphia, Waters regularly stole food, milk and money, sleeping on heating grates to keep warm in winter.

As a child, Waters’ biggest dream was to be like her grandmother and clean homes for rich white women. She had no idea that life would take her so much further, as an Oscar-nominated actress (for “Pinky”), a star of Broadway plays and musicals and a singer who became popular around the world. Though Parr doesn’t mention her TV series “Beulah,” Waters spent her final years singing with the Billy Graham Crusade before her death in 1977.

As in his earlier shows, Parr for the most part effectively interweaves songs from Waters’ career at appropriate moments to accentuate a thought or emotional tone. After meeting her second husband, musician Eddie Mallory, she sings “Taking a Chance on Love.” “Stormy Weather” follows his decision to seek a divorce because she focused on her career rather than their marriage.

The show is demanding for any performer, and Florida Studio Theater has cast Jannie Jones and Chaundra Cameron as co-equal stars who alternate in the role.

They’re both dynamic performers, but with different strengths. Jones is the better singer, while Cameron more effectively captures the humor and drama in the script, giving life to even the most forced monologues.

There are times when the dialogue seems too eager to set up a song cue and others when the audience doesn’t get to know enough about someone in Waters’ life to share her feelings. Waters may break down in tears, but the aud is left in the cold. That’s particularly true with the details about Mallory, who comes and goes too quickly.

There’s a joyous quality to Jones’ voice, and she brings out a passionate feeling in the more dramatic numbers, particularly “Black and Blue” and “Stormy Weather,” that Cameron misses. But Cameron really puts the gospel fervor into the finale of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

Michael Sebastian’s arrangements are alternately bouncy and poignant, interrupted on many occasions for more storytelling between verses. He also provides a proficient underscoring that gives the show a more cinematic quality.

That’s also how director Dennis Courtney has staged the piece, aided by simple wooden set pieces and a lighting design that uses clear focus and projections to easily shift the scene from a run-down apartment to a Harlem nightclub, a Catholic school or a movie set. Costuming also creates images of the changes in Waters’ life.

The idea of a theater producing all three shows in repertory or successive stagings is intriguing, but even alone, Waters’ life is worth rediscovering.

Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow

Florida Studio Theater, Sarasota, Fla.; 173 seats $34 top

Production: A Florida Studio Theater production of a musical in two acts by Larry Parr. Directed and choreographed by Dennis Courtney. Musical director and arranger, Michael Sebastian.

Creative: Sets, Nayna Ramey; costumes, Marcella Beckwith; lighting, Martin E. Vreeland; production stage manager, Stacy A. Blackburn. Opened Oct. 7, 2005. Reviewed Oct. 7 and 8. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN. Musical numbers: "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," "Masculine Men, Feminine Women," "Frankie and Johnny," "I Don't Dig You, Jack," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "The Joint Is Jumpin'," "Little Black Boy," "Old Man Harlem," "Dinah," "Taking a Chance on Love," "Am I Blue?," "Stormy Weather," "Heat Wave," "Cabin in the Sky," "Black and Blue," "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" (reprise).

Cast: Ethel Waters - Jannie Jones/Chaundra Cameron

More Legit

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

  • Carol Channing Dead

    Carol Channing, Star of Broadway's 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

    Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97. Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Her publicist B. Harlan Boll confirmed the news. He wrote, “It is with [...]

  • 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    'What the Constitution Means to Me' Transfers to Broadway

    “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a buzzy Off-Broadway production that counts Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem among its fans, is making the move uptown. The play will come to Broadway this spring for a 12-week limited run at the Helen Hayes Theater. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is one part civics lesson, one [...]

  • Choir Boy review

    Broadway Review: 'Choir Boy'

    Honestly, I was afraid that “Choir Boy” — the sweetly exuberant account of a gifted prep school boy’s coming of age, written by “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney — would be swallowed up in a Broadway house, after winning us over in an Off Broadway staging in 2013.  But aside from the odd set [...]

  • Jason Robert Brown

    Listen: How Ariana Grande Got Jason Robert Brown to Madison Square Garden

    Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown never expected to find himself performing onstage at Madison Square Garden. But he did — thanks to his pal Ariana Grande. Brown met Grande before she was a superstar, when she was in the 2008 Broadway cast of his teen musical “13.” The two have kept in touch ever since [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content