For a musical that preaches against the evils of drug use and graphically shows the deleterious effects upon abuser and loved ones alike, Sparkle needs a jolt of speed.
Now playing in a drugged-out, somnambulistic production at Ensemble Theatre, this stage adaptation of the 1976 Irene Cara film dilutes whatever strengths this story has, while it slowly, very slowly, unfolds. There are fine points and high moments sprinkled throughout, but the sluggish pace and numerous unnecessary scenes trip up the flow, so that it feels like we're taking two steps back for every one forward. Surprisingly, the musical's adapters -- renowned playwright Ntozake Shange (for colored girls...) and Walter Dallas, artistic director of Philadelphia's Freedom Theatre, where this production was workshopped in 2000 -- abandon their acute critical faculties and allow the story to wobble and stagger with extraneous detours, one-note characters and an anemic main role. Curtis Mayfield's original songs have been augmented by '50s/'60s standards ("In the Still of the Night," "Twilight Time," "Love Potion No. 9," "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"), which only increase the play's ballast. As an uncredited script doctor, Dick Gregory has supplied the "jokes." Obviously, not nearly enough.
Up in Harlem in 1959, single mom Effie (Beverly Williams) runs a tight ship. Morally upright, patient to a fault, Mama works hard as a maid for a white family downtown. She holds her family together, seeing that her three daughters do their homework and instilling in them noble values. Daughter Sparkle (Constance Washington) is sweet and nice; Dolores (Ane Mouton) is a questioning political firebrand, putting down Mama's subservience to the Man; Sister (Teacake Ferguson) is the sexy spitfire with the voice of gold, who juggles boyfriends and sneaks away for midnight trysts. Her dream is to "get out."
Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.
Through July 9. $25-$35.
Obsessed with music, neighborhood good guy Stix (Nkrumah Gatling) loves Sparkle from afar, and foresees fame and fortune in forming a singing doo-wop group with her. He and his best friend, street hustler Levi (Rocfielle "Roc" Living), form a quintet with the sisters, and off they go to an amateur night contest, where their comically overchoreographed routine, with Sister as lead singer, wins first prize. Pumped, Stix realizes that his dream is within reach.
Meanwhile, Levi falls in with street thug Satin Struthers (Broderick Jones). He's one slick operator in his white suits, multicolor shirts and gangster fedora; he's also really mean to his current girlfriend. With Levi gone over to the dark side as Satin's toady, Stix transforms the quintet into a female trio, hyping the fact that they're sisters. His spiel works, and the sister act gets booked into a nightclub. Levi brings Satin to see his old friends, but with one glance at hot Sister, Satin's girlfriend is out the door and her mink gets handed to Sister, who's only too happy to follow the money. Drugs and humiliating abuse from Satin follow. "I can't fly on one wing," Sister pleads in her pathetic attempt to justify her zonked-out appearance and bruised face when the sister act is on the verge of major success.
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As you might discern from the tale so far (and we're still only in the middle of Act I), this is Sister's story and will remain so. Sparkle is relegated to the background, while her more complex sibling gets the show's star turns and drama. Stix and Mama offhandedly praise her singing, but there's no indication she's a star-to-be. The musical is named for her, for heaven's sake -- where is she and why is she so bland?
This obvious lack of focus parallels the show's overall structural failure. Stale comedy routines and bad nightclub acts (not the sisters') are given prominence over plot. One of these numbers would be enough to set the tone. Whole sequences replay what we've previously learned without adding anything new about the characters. When faced with such a problematic script, the director needs a nimble hand to divert our wandering attention. Except for some atmospheric lighting effects -- the background scrim goes blood-red for Sister and Satin's first sexual encounter -- the minimal production has limited style and panache, and director Ron Himes plays every scene in the same numbing pace. In a musical, pep and variety are requisites.
As increasingly strung out Sister, Ferguson supplies the show's sparkle in both voice and acting chops. Her best number is her last, a shattering solo rendition of "Given Up," sung sitting on a stool, junked up and dying. She gives it her all, and we're in the presence of a true star. As wayward Levi, Living makes his Ensemble debut with a magnetic, masculine style that captures this petty hood's allure. Because Sparkle has nothing to do of any import until the final moments of the show, it's difficult to assess what Washington brings to the role. As written, there's no spark in the character, and the actress doesn't convince us that she has it.
Neither does the play.