Sweet Songs of the Soul
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 2, 2005
There are several near-transcendent moments for theatre lovers in Melba Moore's new autobiographical musical Sweet Songs of the Soul. One, predictably, comes when she dons the goofy pigtails that she wore as Lutiebell Gussie Mae Jenkins and bursts into a joyous rendition of the title song from Purlie, shedding thirty-odd years in the process. Another, just before this, is a lovely, intelligent reading of "Easy to be Hard" from Hair, which she sang on Broadway in 1969. And—my favorite, I think—happens near the end of Act I: a delicious tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, "Air Mail Special," Chick Webb's blend of classic scat and a dozen or so signature tunes, uncannily rendered by Moore in a voice practically as sweet and pure and strong as Ella's.
The funny thing, though, is that Moore herself seems mostly disengaged when she performs these numbers, all of them hallmarks of her blazing (if long-ago) years of Broadway and vocal stardom. Technically, she's note-perfect, displaying the four-octave range that made her famous; but her mind isn't on these triumphs of her past.
It is, instead, very focused on telling the story of her rise, fall, and rehabilitation—especially the last of these, which happened with the help of friends she calls Born Again Saints; daily readings of the Bible; deep, deep faith; and the music that is obviously her first love, gospel. At the beginning of the show, she talks about her topsy-turvy childhood: she grew up in Manhattan, the daughter of a jazz singer who spent most of her time touring, leaving little Melba to be raised by her grandmother and then by an illiterate maiden lady from the Deep South (her recollection of one of Miz Lou's tales of Brer Rabbit is a high point of the show). There's an interesting story here, and one hopes that Moore—who admits that this production is still a work-in-progress—will go further (and deeper) in exploring her early years in future iterations of Sweet Songs of the Soul.
Act Two is about her quick rise to fame and then, for most of its running time, a series of personal and career calamities that brought her to the depths of despair. This, too, is intriguing material; it needs to be shaped and honed, however, to clarify the chain of events and especially to allow audiences to really understand how Moore fell so low, the better to appreciate how high and strong she's bounced back. After struggling through this lengthy narrative, she launches into "Lean On Me," a gospel piece written by Van McCoy that's become her new signature song, and for the first time in the show she really comes to life. A sing- and clap-along encore to another traditional gospel hymn turns Sweet Songs of the Soul, at its end, into a kind of revival meeting.
If you came, as I did, expecting greatest hits from Purlie and Hair, you may feel a bit left out in the cold by this finale. But Moore's new fans—prepared, as I was not, that this show would be a "ministry" (her word)—were on their feet, and rhapsodic.