A two-woman show with Chicago musical-theater favorites E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle should be a slam-dunk.
And while this staging of the new show “Black Pearl Sings” at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre is worthwhile, its problem is that Black Pearl (Butler) doesn’t sing enough. And neither does her co-star.
This is a play with several a cappella musical snippets and just two songs interspersed. Forgive the audience for thinking “false advertising” with the casting of Butler and McMonagle, whose combined musical-theater accomplishments include shows in New York and Chicago, and national runs of “Les Miserables,” “The Wiz,” “Sound of Music,” “The Secret Garden,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Billy Elliott,” “Evita” … and the list goes on.
The two also perform in Northlight cabarets—Butler annually on New Year’s Eve and McMonagle in a Valentine’s Day “Three Divas” fete with Heidi Kettenring and Christine Sherrill. So the audience’s unmet vocal expectations are to be predicted.
But it’s not totally fair to pigeonhole these two fine talents. They are terrific actors who shine in this story of a depression-era folklorist from the Library of Congress who finds her life’s work in the voice of a Texas inmate, Pearl, incarcerated for murder-by-castration because her victim “needed killin’.”
Through their daily sessions unearthing the music of Pearl’s African-American ancestry, the two forge a bond that ultimately lead to Pearl getting parole and performing in concerts in New York. And, there’s reflection on the importance of family, by two women of vastly disparate backgrounds and aspirations.
Butler and McMonagle are spot-on in their characterizations of the poor, South Carolinian Alberta “Pearl” Johnson and uptight Ivy League professor wannabe Susanna Mullally, respectively. But when they sing, it’s hard not to wish this play were a musical.
“Black Pearl Sings” plods a bit through its first act, set in the prison warden’s office. But with the backdrop of New York City through apartment windows, it finds its pace in the second act by providing greater insight into the characters’ desires, motivations and flaws.
The play is based on the history of folklorist John Lomax, who discovered Huddie Ledbetter (better known as recording artist Lead Belly) in a Louisiana prison. Playwright Frank Higgins changed the characters to women, he said, so as not to “get bogged down in historical truth. My idea was to create the characters’ gender and let them tell their own stories.”
It just would have been better if he’d let these women sing them.
“Black Pearl Sings” runs through Feb. 19 at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets and information are available at northlight.org or 847-673-6300.