WHAT “Marie and Rosetta”
WHERE Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St.
INFO $65; 212-352-3101, atlantictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Small, spectacular show — biography and concert — about forgotten musical innovators.
If much of the world has forgotten Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight — and, certainly, a lot of us have — playwright George Brant makes an intimate yet spectacular case for correcting that wrong.
In just 90 minutes, “Marie and Rosetta” does more than introduce two women with a little-known story about black music in the mid-20th century. With Kecia Lewis as the raucously wise and been-around Rosetta, and Rebecca Naomi Jones as what the veteran calls her “high-church” prodigy, the production manages to tell their story, take us into the nuanced evolution of a musical collaboration and friendship, and deliver the music that, whether we know it or not, is part of rock and roll legend.
You don’t need Marie to say late in the succinct and touching play that Rosetta, with her gospel-flavored blues and her pioneering electric guitar, infused such rock and roll superstars as, for starters, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix.
In director Neil Pepe’s sly, expert chamber musical at his Atlantic Theater Company, Lewis and Jones don’t just portray the women on what appears to be their first rehearsal in the casket room of a funeral parlor before their first concert in a tobacco warehouse in Mississippi, 1946. These actors also sing, whisper and wail the wonderful songs — including “This Train” and “Down by the Riverside” — and are so convincing at the piano and guitar that it’s hard to believe they are not playing. Fairness demands that credit goes to Felicia Collins and Deah Harriott behind the scrim.