'When Hell Freezes Over': rousing songs about black life in America

It's a musical evening that picks you up and shakes you like one of the flashing tambourines in ''Movin' Up to Higher Ground.'' Vinnette Carroll's ''When Hell Freezes Over, I'll Skate'' is the latest shout of joy and anguish from the woman who has dedicated her life to portraying the black experience through music. Ms. Carroll has also brought us ''Your Arm's Too Short to Box With God'' and ''Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope.''

This time around, at the Kennedy Center, Ms. Carroll has done a rousing tone poem on black life based on the work of poets Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lindamichellebaron Langston Hughes, and Nikki Giovanni. Ms. Carroll, listed as director and ''conceiver,'' has divided the production into two acts: the first, dealing with black life of the mid-19th-century rural South; the second, that of the mid- to late 20th-century urban North. Original music and lyrics are by H. B. Barnum, Cleavant Derricks, and Clinton Derricks-Carroll.

The production begins as the spotlight hits the statuesque Nora Cole, standing on a pedestal swathed in a translucent gold cloak. Her face is a mask, as austerely beautiful as Nefertiti's. Then ''The Colored Band'' of the old South begins the traditional black singing and dancing. But there is an undercurrent sung: ''We wear the mask that grins and lies, this debt we pay to human guile . . . .'' The seven couples who share equal billing in this musical revue of black life wear Dona Granata's dramatic costumes: pastel, ruffled, and flounced gowns or ice cream suits for the 19th-century scenes; jazzy outfits in bold jewel colors for the contemporary Act II.

There are moments when the production explodes with emotion: when Trina Thomas with her rich, raise-the-roof contralto belts out the spiritual ''Lost in the Wilderness,'' and when Tommy Hollis shakes the Kennedy Center congregation with ''An Ante-Bellum'' sermon against slavery (Moses vs. Pharaoh), reminiscent of Cleavon Little's showstopper in ''Purlie.'' He masks the message by singing: ''Don't you run and tell your master I's a preachin' discontent, 'cause I isn't . . . I'm talking about freedom in a Biblistic way . . . '' The cast also pulls out all the stops for a strutting, prancing, crowd-rouser, ''Little Liza Jane,'' one of the most lively numbers by choreographer Michele Simmons.

''When Hell Freezes Over'' is a spirited but uneven production. The first act is more successful than the second, which deals with the blues of urban life and love up North. ''How can you fix your mouth to say there's a shortage of good men when I'm here?'' wails the endearing L. Michael Gray before blasting off with ''Fat Man Blues'' to Trina Thomas. His double-dip soliloquy and her banana split of an answer, ''Why I Went Off My Diet,'' are some of the delights of a second act which sometimes falters in pace and content.

A small orchestra is effectively placed in a raised semicircle near the ceiling of the stage, rather than in the pit, so the music (supervised by H.B. Barnum) moves out over Lawrence Miller's minimal sets.

This Vinnette Carroll production seems lost in the vast Eisenhower Theater. It seems more suited to a smaller, more intimate space like the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, and is apparently not drawing big enough crowds to fill the Eisenhower. For this show's high ticket prices, an audience today expects a larger, more lavish production, often with a star for drawing power. It's unfortunate that ''When Hell Freezes Over'' may not be finding its audience, because it's a treat of an evening. As Ms. Carroll says in a Stagebill interview , ''It's a show about always looking on the bright side. It's a celebration; it's not a lecture on black history.''

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