“Cabin in the Sky”
City Center Encores!
The recent City Center Encores! concert, “Cabin in the Sky,” was a completely pleasurable and gloriously musical presentation of this little produced show. With music by Vernon Duke and lyrics by John LaTouche, “Cabin in the Sky” opened on Broadway in 1940 and produced an enjoyable film version that fortunately retained the musical’s indispensable original star Ethel Waters. Waters also recorded four songs from the show (which are available on CD) and there is also a cast recording of an Off-Broadway production that opened in 1964. Still, the chances of this show being revived in a full production seemed relatively slim.
Thankfully, City Center Encores! saw fit to reconstruct the score (with the wonderfully able assistance of legendary orchestrator Jonathan Tunick) for a concert presentation that ranked with the best that this series has ever produced. From a terrific cast to fine direction by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and outstanding choreography by Camille A. Brown, “Cabin in the Sky” at City Center proved to be a real jewel.
It should be stated that the book of “Cabin in the Sky” was a bit dated, but that’s not what you go to see at an Encores! concert: what’s most important is the score. In this department, “Cabin in the Sky” came up all aces. With sinuous orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and expert musical direction by the reliable Rob Berman, this show’s score rang out beautifully from beginning to end. Lending immeasurable assistance were the strong voices of all the principal actors.
Indeed, this show truly was blessed with luxury casting. The plot, such as it was, concerned the fate of Little Joe (an endearing Michael Potts) and whether, upon his death, he would be destined to go to heaven or hell. Representing these opposing sides, Chuck Cooper and Norm Lewis were magnificent. I have been a big fan of both of these actors for decades, and they didn’t disappoint. Cast as “The Head Man” to the devil, Chuck Cooper was sly and mischievous and he led his big number, “Do What You Wanna Do,” sinfully well. Representing heaven, as “The Lord’s General,” Norm Lewis lent his incomparable voice to the songs “The Man Upstairs” and “It’s Not So Bad to Be Good.” More so even then their strong singing, both Chuck Cooper and Norm Lewis brought real authority and musical theatre knowhow to these pivotal characters, which proved invaluable.
Still, there was another performer in “Cabin in the Sky” who took vocal honors. Though cast slightly against type, LaChanze took on the Ethel Waters role of Little Joe’s churchgoing wife, Petunia. I was a bit hesitant to see how this performer would be able to fill the sizable shoes of Ethel Waters, but, once LaChanze launched into her first number, “Taking a Chance on Love,” everything was golden. From that point on, LaChanze sparkled in every song, including “Love Turned the Light Out,” the heavenly title tune, and “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” (which was lifted from the film and written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg). LaChanze also sizzled in the jazzy second act number “Savannah” and all-in-all gave a real star performance.
Not to be forgotten, Carly Hughes brought her own measure of sexiness to the show’s “wicked” character, Georgia Brown, and her rendition of “Honey in the Honeycomb” was a definite highlight. It should be mentioned that the entire cast was grand, especially in the full-company numbers, “Dry Bones” and the opening hymn, “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water” (led by a marvelous Marva Hicks). The dance sequences were also remarkable, with wonderful choreography by Camille A. Brown, and the overall look of the show was just right, with notable work by scenic designer Anna Louizos, costume designer Karen Perry, and striking lighting design by Ken Billington.
“Cabin in the Sky” proved to be a real treasure, with the score alone making a concert presentation of this musical entirely worthy. If there was one former Encores! concert that came to mind throughout much of the show, it was the 1998 presentation of “St. Louis Woman,” which, like “Cabin in the Sky,” was a resurrection of a little heard musical from the 1940s. The score and cast of the “St Louis Woman” concert, luckily, were preserved on a complete cast recording CD. My one big wish is that the sterling cast of the Encores! “Cabin in the Sky” will follow suit and and go into the recording studio, so that this gorgeous score heard for one magical weekend at City Center will be available for everyone to enjoy forever.
Top photo: Michael Potts and LaChanze
Photo by Joan Marcus