Broadway Revisits Life and Music of Mahalia Jackson

THEATER: REVIEW

TRULY BLESSED `A musical celebration of Mahalia Jackson,' conceived and written by Queen Esther Marrow, who also contributed original music and lyrics. Directed by Robert Kalfin. Starring Miss Marrow. At the Longacre Theatre. `TRULY BLESSED'' resounds with joy and fervor. Queen Esther Marrow's ``celebration'' of the legendary Mahalia Jackson counterpoints a recital of mostly gospel music with biographical footnotes.

If director Robert Kalfin's Broadway treatment tends to stress show-biz glitz, the overall results are often stirring and always heartfelt.

Miss Marrow suits the commentary to the song in this mixture of gospel, blues, and pop. Referring to ``St. Louis Blues,'' Queen Esther/Mahalia asks, ``What black woman can't sing the blues?'' But gospel songs are ``songs of love.'' As proof, she offers such Mahalia Jackson classics as ``He's Got the Whole World in His Hands,'' ``Didn't It Rain,'' and ``I've Been Buked,'' as well as several numbers of her own and Reginald Royal's composing.

The biographical footnotes cover Jackson's impoverished New Orleans childhood, early struggles in Chicago, the rigors of touring on the ``chitlin circuit,'' and the ultimate recognition that made her a world renowned artist.

Early on, Miss Marrow recalls Jackson's Psalm-prompted rejoinder to the staid black pastors who objected to her style of gospel singing. She reflects on Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley's solicitation for support (``He's dealing with a woman who has the interests of her people at heart'') and on her regard for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (``I've got to help that young man...''). She waxes fervent over her Carnegie Hall debut and her visit to the Holy Land.

In an extended comic sketch, Marrow and her four fellow performers poke good-natured fun at the Berkshire Music Festival classicists whom she initiates into the art of offbeat hand-clapping. There's plenty of hand-clapping, by audience and performers, and the requisite amount of tambourine shaking, in the course of ``Truly Blessed.''

The performance relaxes occasionally from its driving beat and forte tone for the gentler musical idioms of Marrow's ``Thank You for the Change in My Life'' and the a cappella ``Wade in the Water.''

Like the star herself, Carl Hall, Lynette G. DuPr'e, Doug Eskew, and Gwen Stewart are strong vocalists and sufficiently nimble for Larry Vickers's choreography. Their tightly staged performance receives upbeat instrumental backing from the onstage combo led by Aaron Graves.

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