REVIEWS: Cabin in the Sky

Cabin in the Sky
NYTheatre.com Reviews October 21, 2003
Reviewed by Martin Denton

In 15 previous reviews of Musicals Tonight productions, I’ve neglected to mention the charming way that producer Mel Miller opens each and every one of his shows. He climbs onto the stage, introduces himself, and then offers three or four minutes of background - about the show and its creators, and about the moment in history when this particular revival originated. So we learn, for example, that 1940-41 was the leanest Broadway season up to that time: just Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie, Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark, Gene Kelly in Pal Joey, Al Jolson in Hold on to Your Hats, and of course Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky.

Well, those were certainly the days, eh? The best thing about Miller’s work is that he brings the golden age of American musicals theatre back to us with modest and unadorned (and unamplified!) concert-style versions of shows that aren’t likely to turn up on Broadway but that absolutely deserve a second hearing. Cabin in the Sky exemplifies the Musicals Tonight ethos: it’s got a book of remarkable sophistication (for 1940) that nevertheless wouldn't scan as anything other than a curiosity piece in 2003, all about a pious black woman named Petunia who prays so hard over her dying good-for-nothing husband's body that the Lord decides to give Little Joe six more months to earn his place in heaven. The Lord's General and his counterpart form the Other Place, Lucifer, Jr., do battle for Little Joe's soul, while their earthly representatives, Petunia and the sexy seductress Georgia Brown, duke it out for his body. There’s a charming simplicity to it all, but also a certain simplemindedness: Little Joe, in particular, is awfully close kin to Amos 'n' Andy.

Lynn Root's libretto turns out to be the strongest element of Cabin in the Sky. The score, by Vernon Duke and John Latouche, is a string of very pleasant but mostly undistinguished pop tunes. There are a few gems: the title song reaches for greatness, and "Taking a Chance on Love" is catchy and inspiring.

Opening night found the 15-member ensemble less surefooted than in previous Musicals Tonight premieres, but game and enthusiastic throughout and downright terrific in the rousing choral numbers (both of them traditional spirituals) "Wade in the Water" and "Dat Suits Me." Among the principals, the standouts are Joe Wilson, Jr. as Lucifer, Jr. and Thursday Farrar as Georgia Brown, but then again that's at least partly because naughty characters are always more interesting than nice ones. Romelda T. Benjamin, as one of the devil's henchmen, is loaded with stage presence; Tanya Tatum and especially Joy Harrell, soloists in the chorals, have gorgeous, big voices.

Cabin in the Sky
TheatreMania.com October 22, 2003
Reviewed by Marc Miller

This has been a great weekend for seeing small productions of old, old musicals in NYC. Over the weekend the York Theatre’s Musicals in Mufti pulled out Jerome Kern’s Oh, Boy!, from 1917. Last night, Mel Miller’s adventurous Musicals Tonight series opened is season with Vernon Duke’s 1940 Cabin in the Sky.

Which is the trickier property to pull off in 2003? Surprisingly, it’s Cabin in the Sky. The Kern title is a "Princess Theatre" show, one of that revered group of early Kern- Guy Bolton- P.G. Wodehouse musicals in which song and story had at least a nodding acquaintance; as such it’s a grandfather to modern musicals, its influence stretching at least as far as early Sondheim. But Cabin in the Sky belongs to an obscure, nearly forgotten theatrical subgenre: It’s a faux-naif African-American folk, a morality play with elements of fantasy, mild social satire, and a good-against-evil plot with an outcome that’s never much in doubt. Transporting a 2003 audience back to 1940 - that is, the 1940 of all-white audiences applauding all-black casts in what today strikes us as racially sensitive material - turns out to be ticklish business.

Not that this Cabin isn’t fascinating for musical theatre buffs or a perfectly solid piece by the standards of its day. Aside from Duke’s strong, sophisticated music, there are deft lyrics by a then -22-year-old John Latouche. The book, by Lynn Root, tells a simple story clearly and with good humor: Little Joe (Tyrone Grant), having abandoned his wife Petunia (Leslee Warren) for the sultry Georgia Brown (Thursday Farrar), has been shot in a barroom brawl. Only Petunia’s fervent prayers keep him from instant damnation. Instead, he is returned to Earth for six months, during which time Lucifer, Jr. (Joe Wilson, Jr.) and "the General," an agent of the Lord (Glenn Townsend), battle for his soul. See what I mean by faux-naif?

Root keeps the dialogue '40s-topical, with jokes about Russia and disarmament conferences, and knows how to set up a good salty exchange: When Georgia’s other suitor is asked if he's packing a pistol, he growls, "This bulge ain't all me!" But none of the characters go on much of a journey. Petunia's piety becomes a little monotonous; apparently original star Ethel Waters’ radiance transcended that. (You can see it in the 1943 film version.) It’s actually a relief when Petunia turns into a femme fatale in order to beat Georgia at her own game. As for Georgia, she’s an uncomplicated floozy. And Little Joe is simply a gambling, womanizing, lazy lout who’s trying (not very hard) to reform. One has the undeniable feeling that these characters were kept basic and predictable because the public wouldn’t have really accepted black dramatis personae with more edge or intellect.

Musicals Tonight Brings Cabin in the Sky to Life for Today’s Audience AmericanTheatre Web October 31, 2003
Reviewed by Andy Propst

On Broadway in 1940, audiences had a pretty eclectic mix of fare when it came to new musicals. There was the ‘traditional’ with Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie. The "realistic" was represented with Pal Joey starring Gene Kelly, while fantasy featured prominently in Lady in the Dark. For those looking for the allegorical, Cabin in the Sky by Vernon Duke and John Latouche with book by Lynn Root was on the boards. Currently Musicals Tonight is offering a staged concert version of this later piece that, while not transporting the audience back to an October 1940 opening night, gives audiences a chance to revisit this classic score, and its not so classic book.

The story essentially is a God versus the Devil tale set in the south among poor blacks. At the play’s opening, Little Joe lies in his home dying. When his soul passes into the next world, the prayers of his wife, Petunia, convince God that the man who has been anything but a saint on earth should get another six months to try to prove himself. Little Joe’s soul is sent back to his body and God’s General and Lucifer’s son promise to do everything in their power to make sure that the man ends up in their camp.

For a while, it looks as if heaven will win out, but when the forces from below give Little Joe a winning sweepstakes ticket, the tables turn in their favor. Petunia catches Little Joe with Georgia Brown, the woman with whom he had been having an affair prior to his "near death" experience. Petunia throws the two of them out of her home. Before the final curtain, though, Root uses an extremely thin dues ex machina to give the audience a happy ending.

The standards from Cabin include its title song, "Taking a Chance on Love," and "Do What You Wanna Do." In the Musicals Tonight staging, the first two of these numbers are delivered by Leslee Warren’s Petunia. Warren, who resembles a young Gloria Foster, has a terrific voice and a face that seems to radiate goodness. When she plays the vamp to Tyrone Grant’s deftly bumbling Little Joe, it’s hard to imagine what the man sees in Georgia Brown. As the Head Man (Lucifer’s Son), Joe Wilson, Jr. provides a sinewy rendering of the third standard from the show, but one wishes that he might produce a little more heat, here and throughout.

Audiences may also recognize some other tunes in the staging here including "Honey in the Honeycomb" and "Savannah," two up-tempo numbers from the musical’s second act. Less familiar will be "We’ll Live All Over Again," a number in three-quarter time with the melodic complexities of Sondheim’s waltzes from A Little Night Music. This number has been restored to Cabin after its excision from the original production.

Added to the score here is the classic "Not a Care in the World," which was integrated into a 1964 revival of the show, and which comes to Cabin by way of the 1941 musical Banjo Eyes, a Duke-Latouche musicalization of Three Men on a Horse. Musicals Tonight has also included "Livin’ It Up," a song written specifically for that revival.

With these additions and other changes (the spiritual "Dem bones" was part of the original production but not heard here, while the spiritual "Wade in the Water" from the revival is performed), one wonders if director Thomas Mills might have spent a little time reworking some of the more awkward aspects of the book not to make it more P.C. (which in this show, in 2003, it is definitely not), but more elegant in terms of song cues.

Additionally, it’s difficult to understand why "Not a Care in the World" and "Cabin in the Sky" follow one another in the Musicals Tonight production. They both essentially carry the same sentiment of Petunia and Little Joe thinking about a better life after he has begun to mend his ways. Based on the play-list from the revival, the songs were separated by a full act. In this production, they seem to be a musical redundancy.

These are small quibbles of musical theatre restoration. What Mills and producer Mel Miller are giving audiences is a chance to hear Cabin in the Sky sung by a fine cast (sans amplification) and performed without an updated, and potentially more lethal, book. That, alone, is commendable and worth the price of admission.

Musicals Tonight Takes a Chance on Cabin in the Sky
Playbill October 21, 2003
Reviewed by Robert Simonson

Cabin in the Sky, the next lesser-known musical to be presented in modest concert form by the downtown Musicals Tonight company, begins its run Oct. 21. It will play until Nov. 9. The troupe of the script-in-hand concert includes Leslee Warren (as Petunia), Tyrone Grant (Little Joe), Glenn Townsend (The Lord’s General), Joe Wilson, Jr. (The Devil’s Son), and Thursday Farrar (Sweet Georgia Brown). The cast also includes Brian Dickerson, Zakiya Young, Tanya Tatum, Joy Harrell, Richie McCall, Toni Trucks and Brian Thomas Williams (as the God-fearing friends of Petunia) and Derrick Cobey, Demond Nason, Romelda T. Benjamin, (as those working for the devil).

Vernon Duke penned the music, Lynn Root the libretto, and John Latouche the lyrics (Ted Fetter has co-credit on the lyrics of "Taking a Chance on Love"). The snow, a musical fable "about a tug of war between good and evil in the South," spawned the hit song, "Taking a Chance on Love."

Little Joe has been killed in a knife fight, leaving wife Petunia alone to pray for her husband’s placement in heaven. A reprieve is granted by God: If Joe mends his ways, he will get into heaven.

The 1940 Broadway musical starred Ethel Waters. George Balanchine was choreographer and director. Katherine Dunham made her Broadway debut with the show. Todd Duncan, Rex Ingram and Dooley Wilson also starred. The 1943 film featured Waters and a young Lena Horne. Songs in the score include "Honey in a Honeycomb," "Cabin in the Sky," "My Old Virginia Home on the River Nile," and "Love Turned the Light Out."

Three special songs will be heard in the piano-and-voice Cabin in the Sky: "Living It Up", with words and music by Duke, heard in the 1964 Off-Broadway revival; "We’ll Live All Over Again" (cut from the 1940 show); and "Not a Care in the World," from Duke’s Banjo Eyes.

Thomas Mills directs. Barbara Anselmi is music director.

Tickets are $19. Performances play the MainStage of the Sol Goldman 14th Street YMHA, 344 E. 14th Street between First and Second Avenue. For information, call (212) 868-4444.

Mel Miller is artistic director of Musicals Tonight, which operates on a shoestring budget.

Cabin in the Sky
Off-Off Broadway Review.com October 27, 2003
Reviewed by Seth Bisen-Hersh

Cabin in the Sky premiered in 1940. It has been ravishingly revived at Musicals Tonight! as the start of their sixth season. It is a cute, if dated, musical that explores the conflict between good and evil.

The show starts with Little Joe on his deathbed. His wife, Petunia, prays incessantly for God to bring him back to her. It is soon learned that Little Joe has been a big sinner on Earth - gambling and committing adultery with Georgia Brown. The Devil's son, his Head Man, comes to to bring him down to Hell with his cronies. However, Petunia's prayers are answered and Heaven's General comes down with a band of angels to hear her plea.

God strikes a deal. Little Joe will be returned to Earth and have six months to repent. If he succeeds, he will get into Heaven. The catch is that Little Joe will remember nothing about his near-death experience. Instead, the General and the Head Man stay as spirits. They plot to try to get Little Joe on their side as he struggles to stay faithful to Petunia, even though Georgia Brown tempts him incessantly.

The show is peppered with lovely standards, the most famous one being "Taking a Chance on Love." There are also a few traditional spirituals with incredible harmonies, which were performed perfectly by the talented cast.

Musicals Tonight always attracts incredible talent. The ensemble brought the battle of good and evil to life. The standout performer of the show was Joe Wilson, Jr. Wilson truly showed his versatility playing the nefarious, masculine son of the Devil, since one of his last roles was a hilariously effeminate queen in Little Ham. Wilson nailed every line, adding delicious nuances at every chance. He sang beautifully and stole the show with his show-stopping rendition of "Do What You Want to Do." He should be on Broadway instead of Off-Off.

Thomas Mills directed as efficiently as always. The pacing is crisp and the staging effective. Mills made use of the actors as set pieces cleverly, as well as using the script binders (this was a concert reading) as various props when possible.

A treat from the past, Cabin in the Sky cutely explores a world where the Devil and God exist and battle over a man's soul.

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