The sound of gospel soars through the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, a re-commissioned church with excellent acoustics (if no organ.) The occasion is the limited engagement of “Marie and Rosetta,” a salute to the singers Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis) and Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones). Playwright George Brant has written a perfunctory script about the first rehearsal of this legendary team, but since the biographical details are so thin, it’s all about the glorious voices.
Brant probably felt he had to make a choice between the life stories of the great, guitar-thumping Rosetta Sharpe and her protegee Marie Knight — or the gospel music that lifted their voices up to heaven. That’s too bad, because the skimpy plot has little to say about the lives of these two amazing women who made gospel music accessible to saints and sinners alike.
The setting of the show is more of a spoiler than anything this reviewer might have to say. We’re in a Philadelphia funeral home (with several comfortable-looking coffins on display), the only place where Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her young partner could find to rehearse — and where Sister Rosetta was eventually buried. Or are we in Mississippi, where the women spent the night before the tour that would make them famous?
Brant’s dramatic conceit, supported by Neil Pepe’s direction, is that Sister Rosetta is already a legend in her own time (which was the 1930s and 40s) and Marie, a young unknown, is terrified of her — until they start singing and realize they were made for each other. As a story framework, it’s corny as hell, but it works well enough to support the singers and their celestial voices.
Lewis (“Once On This Island,” “The Drowsy Chaperone”) is a force of nature, and when she unleashes her powerhouse voice on rockin’ versions of gospel classics like “Didn’t It Rain?” as well as numbers like Sister Rosetta’s own “Sit Down,” “Rock Me,” and the more secular, very raunchy “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa,” the church roof elevates.
Marie Knight is young and innocent when Sister Rosetta discovers her, but the child finds her voice once Jones (“American Idiot,” “Passing Strange”) takes over. Lewis has fun showing this devout church lady how to shake her hips and get “a little more barrelhouse” and “a little more boogie” into her church-y singing. But while she certainly holds her own in swinging duets like “Four or Five Times,” Jones comes closest to God when she raises her beautiful voice to sing great gospel numbers like “Peace in the Valley” and “Amazing Grace.”
With smart management, this is a show that could hit the road and stay out there until the Second Coming.