Mahalia Jackson had a habit of hiding money in her blouse. The running joke is the connecting thread for "Mahalia: A Gospel Musical" chronicling the Queen of Gospel, a production of Piccolo Spoleto.
Audiences follow Mahalia, played by Sheri McClain-Brown, as she rises from humble beginnings in New Orleans to the top of the Gospel charts.
The play opens to a simple stage. Tables and chairs are shifted to resemble everything from a living room to cars to church pews. The audience is oriented to time and place by projections of Jackson, the South Side of Chicago, and those who worked with her in her career.
Despite slight technical glitches, McClain-Brown effortlessly takes ownership of songs that made Jackson famous, such as "Walk in Jerusalem" and "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." Her command of these songs will provide a treat for any fan of well-sung Gospel music, but audience members who want a deeper glimpse into Jackson's life may be disappointed.
Tom Stolz's book does not illuminate other areas of Jackson's life, such as her two marriages and subsequent divorces.
Audiences also interact with Thomas Dorsey, played by John Smalls, and Martin Luther King Jr., played by Keith Alston. Smalls was delightfully flamboyant as Dorsey, and Alston rose to the occasion while performing King's "I Have A Dream" speech.
Overall, this is a show with uplifting music that should inspire every member of the family, but fidgety viewers should make note that Mahalia runs for approximately two hours without an intermission.
The play is presented by Art Forms and Theatre Concepts.