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Mahalia – A Gospel Musical at MetroStage

Jordan Wright
February 2010

Bernadine Mitchell - The Queen of Gospel Photo by Chris Mueller

On the North End of Old Town Alexandria MetroStage is a small but prestigious theatre of such import that it has been recognized for its performers and innovative new musicals by the Helen Hayes Awards on numerous occasions. Last week I was privileged to witness a spectacular reprise of Mahalia – A Gospel Musical by Tom Stolz at this intimate venue where it runs through March 14th.

Its star, Bernadine Mitchell, who comes to us from Atlanta, channels “The Queen of Gospel” in a cakewalk. She has already won a Helen Hayes award for Outstanding Actress in a Resident Musical for her role in an earlier MetroStage production. Her co-star, William Hubbard, nailed a nomination for his multiple roles playing Cousin Fred; Pastor Lawrence; songwriter, Thomas A. Dorsey; Blind Francis, Ms. Jackson’s piano accompanist; and Martin Luther King, Jr.

For those who remember and those who may not, Mahalia Jackson was the premiere gospel singer of her day, transcending her genre to perform at Carnegie Hall, tour Europe’s finest concert halls and appear on television shows, such as the iconic Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1950’s. She sang at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and at the historic March on Washington in 1963 at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s request.

In addition she won six Grammys, was commemorated with her own postage stamp, and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…and that’s just the half of it.

Actress, as well as the production’s musical director, S. Renee Clark melds herself into the dual roles of the stern, take-no-prisoners Aunt Duke, and the tentative musicologist and companion to Mahalia, Mildred Falls. It’s no great leap for Clark whose background as a composer and musical director for countless productions has occupied her both here and abroad.

William Hubbard, Bernadine Mitchell, S. Renee Clark - Photo by Chris Mueller

I grew up listening to Mahalia Jackson. It was introduced into our home by African-American folks up from the deep South, who held her revival music and inspirational message in high esteem. To me it is like a lullaby. I’ve heard it since I was a baby. Even if you’ve never heard it before you can sense its roots of soul and blues and picture robed church choirs swaying to the swelling harmonies of Christian hymns and Negro spirituals.

Mitchell, Hubbard and Clark are the perfect complements to each other’s voices…their harmonies so pure and powerful they travel right up the aisles, into the marrow of your bones, and bounce off the back wall of the theatre.

Hallelujah, Mahalia! Your spirit lives on.

For ticket information contact MetroStage at 703 548-9044 or visit MetroStage is located at 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.

For comments or questions about this article contact [email protected].

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