The Virginia Stage Company ends their 39th season by bringing back a show which set box office records in 2006. Crowns is a gospel musical that tells the tale of Yolanda, a 17-year old girl who is sent south by her mother in an effort to keep her from the same trouble that befell her brother. It is very much a coming of age story- will Yolanda growing before our very eyes as she meets various friends and family, all of whom have various stories and tales about the different hats they wear? Their “hattitude” as it were.
Crowns isn’t simply a gospel musical. It also weaves in blues and hip hop in a seamless way. Gospel music always seems to get audiences involved and Crowns is certainly no different. Audience members could be seen standing and singing along at times. Every prayer and story seemed to resonate with the audience and the close feel of the theatre offered them ample opportunity to voice their agreement. To theatre goers such as myself, this can sometimes be rather annoying (ie. Any mainstream Broadway show that becomes a sing along) but strangely enough it wasn’t unwelcome here. It felt right.
The show opens with a wonderful and simple set depicting a subway station. Anyone who has visited Flatbush would know that the sign was a wonderful depiction. However, the curtain opens on a set that will take your breath away. Josafath Reynoso has created truly magnificent scenery full of rich vibrant colors and wonderful use of space. The audience is treated to a wonderful church room with stained glass windows covering much of the available space. Several church benches adorn the room as well as several hat boxes and hat racks. I love when shows are able to build the music right into the set and Reynoso is able to do that with the “organ” and percussion right there onstage. One might think that they would seem out of place, however they have a very organic feel in the room. It is an amazing set that truly shines as it’s own character in the show.
Jason Amato was the lighting designer for the show and he brings a gift to the Virginia Stage Company. I found myself immediately noticing the beautiful lights hanging and thinking how wonderful they would look if… and then they lit up. Throughout the show there is such a wonderful use of subtle light shifts to set the tone. One of my favorite moments was when we first meet the cast as they walk through the door and the powerful lights coming from behind them as they enter. Such an amazing moment, made more powerful by such wonderful light choices. Ironically, the lights were so wonderful that they did point out two small flaws in the production that I saw. Extremely small and perhaps not noticeable if not for such tight lightning everywhere else. The scene I mentioned before had a crew member cross the lights to shut the door behind the actors and that was a bit jarring. Also at times, the follow spot did not seem to keep up with the actors crossing the stage. Two things which I am sure that will definitely tighten as the show progresses.
Costuming by Jeni Schaefer was superbly done. Each of the amazing characters had their own unique look and color. It is truly an art to have costumes compliment the actors, set, and period so efficiently and Schaefer did a wonderful job. One of the amazing aspects of the show were the hats. So many hats of different colors, shapes, materials and sizes. Each story had its own unique hat that went along with it and it seemed that the hats resonated with the audience as much as any other part of the production. It is worth mentioning that a selection of over 50 hats was donated by Ms. Donna Turner and much like the plot of the show, each came with it’s own story.
Musical Direction was done by Roy George. He definitely had a wonderful cast to work with, and it should be noted that he did a remarkable job with the production, which I previously mentioned had rap, blues and gospel. All of the music had an all or nothing feel. Each of the performers goes for broke in every song and George has them delivering and sending your soul soaring. Their performances and power are downright infectious.
The music is brought to the audience quite wonderfully by Jae Shanks, who designed the sound. In Crowns, we are treated to actors that are not just mic’ed up for our benefit, but the sound is also used as a unique part of the set. Reverbs, echoes, sound effects and resonance all wind together to create quite a complex show to listen to, however it is definitely a treat.
Polanco Jones Jr. made some interesting choices as choreographer and it seemed as though all of them definitely worked. While there may not have been huge dance numbers with twenty cast member weaving about, Crowns featured some extremely intricate choreography. There were a few dance numbers and they were wonderful, however it was the choreography with various wraps and sheets that seemed to be the most amazing. In one impressive display we see a pregnancy turn into a birth definitely had an impact judging by the audible response of the audience.
All of this was helmed quite impressively by the director, Raelle Myrick-Hodges. Her use of space and staging were impeccable and every moment of the show truly showed just how much the material meant to her. She had an impressive cast to work with and for me two standouts were Ja’Keetrius Woods who played Yolanda and Amma Osei who played Velma. As Yolanda, Woods had the task of introducing the audience to the show and she definitely set that tempo quickly with her opening rap. She also was the driving point of the source material and she played a reluctant teenager quite well. Sullen faces, mocking dances and the perpetual slouch of today’s youth were present and we definitely were on this journey with her. Osei’s character was a fan favorite and she definitely had some of the most impressive hats. It was her singing that definitely garnered attention however. She threatened to bring the house down not once, but twice during the show with loud and soulful numbers that the audience could not help but get up for.
All in all, it would not surprise me if the records of 2006 were broken. Not quietly, but in the roar of applause as this cast brings Crowns back the Virginia Stage Company. It is definitely a show worth seeing!