Freefall Theatre artistic director Eric Davis called it “a feat of derring-do.” Sister Rosetta Tharpe might have called it an act of rock 'n' roll.
However you want to describe the high-wire opening-night performance of Freefall’s Marie and Rosetta, it’s hard not to call it a success.
The one-act two-hander about early rock pioneer Tharpe and her protege Marie Knight could’ve fallen into chaos after it recast its star less than a week before curtain. Out was the actress originally cast as Tharpe, Jayne Trinette. In was Illeana Kirven, making her Freefall debut.
Speaking to the audience before Saturday’s show, Davis did not elaborate on the rare last-minute switch, only calling Kirven an “emergency replacement," and noting that she had but four days to rehearse. (In a statement after the show, a Freefall spokesman blamed the change on “unforeseen events during the rehearsal process.")
Once you know the show-must-go-on drama built into the production, it’s hard not to un-know it. And that’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, you find yourself looking for slipups and cracks of chemistry between Kirven and her co-star, Hillary Scales-Lewis. On the other, you’re astounded that director Lydia Fort and the rest of the company pulled it off.
Neither response is especially fair to George Brant’s heartfelt play, set in 1946 in a Mississippi funeral home, where Sister Rosetta, whose electrified blend of gospel and the blues influenced the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, was preparing for a tour with the uptight holy roller Marie.
But a play about performers is really about performances. And save for some understated technical work (particularly Dalton Hamilton’s subtle but crucial hand as lighting designer) and whatever miracles transpired backstage, everything rests on the shoulders of Kirven and Scales-Lewis.
Though Rosetta intimidates Marie, Kirven plays her not as a diva, but kind, wise, almost beatific. Her enormous grin rarely leaves her face; she’s smiling even when she’s not. She’s funny, patient and encouraging — but she draws a hard line when asked to compromise her music, and it shows in the unvarnished evangelical way she belts out This Train and Strange Things. Mahalia Jackson — “St. Mahalia,” Rosetta calls her with a snort — may have the favor of the Sunday School set, but Rosetta’s convinced there’s more than one way to get right with God, as long as you live your life truly.
Marie is much younger and star-struck anxious, but Scales-Lewis gives her a demure softness that carries into her singing. In the play, Rosetta has hired Marie to provide a contrast to her own voice, and that comes across in their dialogue and harmonies. Marie is a “tsk-tsker,” as Rosetta puts it, who still finds herself scandalized by the sight of a (*gasp*) electric guitar.
“Your joy has hips," Marie says, squirming in the discomfort of her euphemism.
“Who do you think made those hips?" Rosetta replies. "Who made them swing?”
As Rosetta and Marie loosen up with one another, the play takes on the feel of a cabaret, with Kirven and Scales-Lewis performing full songs together (with the latter on piano, no less). The music’s great, but it feels low-stakes, devoid of drama, and you wonder where it’s really going.
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It’s all a rope-a-dope. Because near the end, Marie and Rosetta takes a turn, subtly foreshadowed but one you still might not see coming. (Suffice it to say that whole get-right-with-God thing ends up mattering more than you think.) The last 15 minutes are exquisitely affecting, with Scales-Lewis, in particular, evolving fully out of tsk-tsk mode and embodying a deep sense of love, soul and humanity.
A twist is the right sort of ending for a production that endured a pretty big one. Knowing that in advance might make you appreciate the results even more.
IF YOU GO
Marie and Rosetta
Through Feb. 16. $25 and up. 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 498-5205. For showtimes, visit freefalltheatre.com.