Five years after the Gershwin brothers debuted Porgy and Bess, a Gershwin protégée born Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky (aka Vernon Duke) composed the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, which lasted longer on Broadway. Its restoration by the Encores concert series shows why it was a hit — and why it has since virtually disappeared.
Featuring a cast that included Ethel Waters, Todd Duncan (the original Porgy) and the innovative and influential dancer Katherine Dunham making her Broadway debut, Cabin in the Sky was staged and choreographed by the great George Balanchine, eight years before he founded New York City Ballet. A few years after its Broadway run, Cabin in the Sky became a much-changed movie starring Waters and Lena Horne (with cameos by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.) A hit song emerged from its score of gospel and big band era jazz, “Taking a Chance on Love” (which is overshadowed now by Vernon Duke’s earlier hits, “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York.”)
The Encores concert, which began its run last night at New York City Center and continues just through Sunday, wows with a cast that includes Broadway veterans Norm Lewis (the first black Phantom on Broadway, among many other accomplishments), LaChanze (Tony winner for The Color Purple, and most recently on Broadway in If/Then) and Chuck Cooper (who was the best thing about Amazing Grace.)
Aficionados are surely arguing which song and singer were highlights and how they compare to the originals, but these are all performers who know how to put over a song, and they are helped immeasurably by Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, played by the lush 31-piece Encores orchestra. Perhaps ironically, given City Center’s continuing fiction that (despite top ticket prices that rival Broadway’s) Encores is a concert series, the production stands out most for its dancing. Choreographer Camille A. Brown commands her sliver of the stage with movement that variously slinks and shimmies and soars.
There’s no getting around, however, how corny and dated the plot of this musical is. Its producers labeled it a “Negro fantasy,” and the critic Brooks Atkinson called it a “darktown fable.”(His review in the New York Times is almost unreadable nowadays, e.g. “Negroes can act with abandon and with infectious enjoyment when the occasion is right.”) In Cabin in the Sky, Heaven and Hell battle for the soul of sinful gambler Little Joe, while two women – one virtuous, one not — fight for his body.
Little Joe Jackson (Michael Potts) dies from wounds suffered in an attack over his gambling debts, but just as Headman, the devil’s son (Chuck Cooper, dressed in a sparkling red suit) and his Henchmen are about to take him down under, Little Joe’s devout wife Petunia (LaChanze) offers up such a fervent prayer that the Lord’s General, a kind of chief angel (Norm Lewis, dressed in bright white), intercedes – giving Little Joe six more months of life to redeem himself.
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson – whose most recent directorial triumph is Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew — has reportedly edited out the more offensive anachronisms (such as the word “pickaninny.”) But the truth is there is no amount of scrubbing that will make this musical feel like anything but a period piece.
Even if Duke’s melodies are a revelation, John Latouche’s lyrics are planted in another era – one stanza in “Taking A Chance on Love,” for example:
I am hep again
I’m gonna fall in step again risk my rep again
taking a chance on love
What may be best about Cabin in the Sky is that it offers a taste of the kind of show that promises to be explored in all its complexity in Shuffle Along – subtitled Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed – which is set to open with an all-star cast on Broadway in April.
Cabin in the Sky is on stage at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street, New York, N.Y.) through February 14.