Marissa Rudd, left, as Marie Knight, and Michelle E. Jordan as Sister Rosetta Tharpe raise the roof in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “Marie and Rosetta.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

‘Marie and Rosetta’ explores power of music, friendship

It’s always a pleasure to discover new talent, and that pleasure is four-fold in “Marie and Rosetta” at the Lucie Stern Center in Palo Alto under the Theatreworks Silicon Valley banner.

Yet calling the talent “new” is qualified; while the characters onstage are successful artists of the last century, their lives and work are largely unknown except to devotees of gospel and blues.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe had a prominent career from the 1930s-60s and her vibrant combination of singing, swaying and guitar playing influenced artists from Elvis Presley to Little Richard. In 1946, she invited protégé Marie Knight into the spotlight, and their joined talent created a vital sound and a friendship that would last until Tharpe’s death in 1973.

Playwright George Brant summarizes the facts and sketches loving portraits of two strong women with faith in their talents and their beliefs, be they secular or spiritual.

Tharpe, a pragmatist, seeks to bolster her career with an infusion of saintly young blood to woo back churchgoing fans wary of her successful excursions into the tarnished world of nightclubs and blues.

Knight, who first appears to hew strictly to the gospel, may not be all she presents. The play becomes an extended negotiation between these two on just what kind of partnership they can forge and remain true to themselves and their goals.

The other discovery in “Marie and Rosetta” is the one-two punch of Michelle E. Jordan as Tharpe and Marissa Rudd as Knight.

Jordan fills the stage with been-there-done-that bravado and speaks with an undeniable authority, clearly knowing the answers to questions before she asks them. Rudd begins coltish but demure and stubbornly focused on principles that may obstruct opportunity. She comes to see, and ultimately revel in, the benefits of compromise.

Both actors are a pleasure to accompany on the show’s journey of discovery and friendship-building, which necessarily telescopes details and suggests themes that might merit further development.

It all comes to soaring fruition when they get to the literal business at hand. Not a musical, per se, “Marie and Rosetta” is nonetheless truly blessed with over a dozen songs originally recorded by Tharpe that run a parallel track to arcs of dialogue, temperament and character.

Rudd and Jordan solo and duet gloriously through an inspiring and invigorating musical continuum from the purest praise to the earthiest blues. Their voices deliver a riveting demonstration of the power of music to move the soul, and they truly honor the women they portray.

REVIEW
Marie and Rosetta
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 31
Tickets: $40 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

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