Long Wharf Theatre
“Crowns,” Regina Taylor’s play with music, which she has also directed, is currently being given a rousing and entirely celebratory production at Long Wharf Theatre. As adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, “Crowns” focuses on an African American girl from Chicago, grieving over the death of her brother, who goes to spend time with her grandmother in South Carolina. It is there that she begins to learn a different way of life and slowly starts to come out of her shell. One of the key things that she learns is the power and dignity of wearing a hat.
Indeed, this beautifully fashioned production offers a wide variety of hats, or crowns, that are worn by the entire cast. Both rap and gospel songs are sung during the show, in which music plays as big a part of this play as the dialogue. “Crowns” has been impeccably cast, with all seven of the actors giving absolutely sterling performances. This show is also gorgeous to look at, with a stunning array of outfits and hats worn distinctively by the women onstage. “Crowns” at Long Wharf Theatre can certainly raise the rafters with its singing, but don’t be surprised if doesn’t evoke some tears, as well.
The original music material has been composed by Jaret Landon, Diedre Murray, and Chesney Snow and it fits in perfectly with Regina Taylor’s play. This production of “Crowns” is actually a 15th Anniversary staging of the show and it is truly the personification of delight and uplifting spirits. Not to give too much away, but in the show’s running time, which is roughly an hour and forty minutes, without an intermission, there is a kind of catharsis that occurs and it proves to be quite remarkable.
In the leading role of Yolanda, Gabrielle Beckford is just perfect as a troubled and rebellious young woman. She begins the show performing a rap song, which is in sharp contrast to the gospel songs that her grandmother and the other women in the show sing. Beckford’s journey to South Carolina to stay with her grandmother is a wake-up call for her and a possible way to find redemption.
The rest of the cast is similarly superlative. Playing Mother Shaw, Yolanda’s grandmother, Shari Addison is almost a force of nature in her fortitude and love for her granddaughter and her singing is just glorious. Each of the actresses in “Crowns” wears a different colored outfit and Addison’s is white, with an elaborate and gorgeous hat on her head, to match.
As Velma, Latice Tenae Crawford, clad in purple, is amazing, as well, especially in one full-throated number that is extremely exciting and a real showstopper. Dressed in a gleaming red, Danielle K. Thomas is also phenomenal, as Melba, and her vocalizing throughout is a knockout. Just as good is the sweet and pretty Rebecca E. Covington, as Jeanette, whose dress and hat are blue, and she harmonizes beautifully with the rest of the company.
Having seen her in other shows, such as “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Chicago,” Stephanie Pope is a particular standout, as Wanda, wearing a yellow outfit, and she is just as sinuous and sensual as ever, with a super-smooth voice that, like her costars, is capable of filling the theatre with song. Playing all the male characters is the astute and gifted Lawrence Clayton, who is especially good as the preacher at the church that Mother Shaw takes Yolanda to. Not to be forgotten, there is a guest soloist, from the New Haven area, named Marcella Monk Flake who delivers a thrilling rendition of the song, “How I Got Over.”
As director, Regina Taylor works splendidly with her designers, including scenic designer Caite Hevner, whose set is smart and minimalist and completely appropriate to the show. Bradley King has provided the vivid and inventive lighting design and a big shout-out should also go to Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection design, which includes a wide variety of images projected onto the back wall of the set. In addition, the musicians, musical director Jaret Landon, on piano and guitar, and David Pleasant, on drums, do a fantastic job and they are featured just on prominently onstage as the actors.
And then there is costume designer Emilio Sosa, who pretty much steals the show with her fabulous costumes, including, most prominently, the most gorgeous set of hats that you have ever seen. As mentioned, the hats play a key role in “Crowns” and they prove to be something of a revelation, particularly to the troubled and young Yolanda, who almost finds a new way of life once she has put one of these delectable creations on her head. “Crowns,” at Long Wharf Theatre, offers an ecstatic good time, especially with all the roof-raising singing throughout, but it reveals more than a bit of heart underneath, as well, which, ultimately, proves to be quite moving.
“Crowns” continues performances at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through May 13, 2018. For tickets, please visit www.longwharf.org or call the box office at 203-787-4282.
Photo: (L-R): Shari Addison, Danielle K. Thomas, Rebecca E. Covington, Lawrence Clayton, Gabrielle Beckford, Latice Tenae Crawford, and Stephanie Pope
Photo by T. Charles Erickson