Open Door Repertory Company
Oak Park, Illinois
By Bob Marovich for The Black Gospel Blog
“I had to die in order to live.”
So says the spirit of Clara Ward in the opening scene of Clara, a musical on the life of the gospel star, written and directed by Jeff Award-nominated McKinley Johnson (Train is Comin’, Georgia Tom). The show held its World Premiere at the Open Door Repertory Company in Oak Park, Illinois this past week.
Johnson’s musical views Clara Ward with a sympathetic eye but without avoiding the rougher details of her life. The unflinching, stark drama is evocative of Alice Walker’s writing, specifically The Color Purple, in its portrayal of a family whose open wounds don’t always heal, but its members press on the best they can.
As in life, Gertrude “Mother” Ward (played with aplomb by Toni Lynice Fountain) is a larger-than-life presence in Clara: ambitious and demanding, a solid rock of strength who is both Mommie Dearest and Rose Hovick (mother of Gypsy Rose Lee) rolled into one. The first half of the show focuses on the pre-teen and teenaged years of Clara and her sister Willa (played by the talented twins Jillian and Joshlyn Lomax, respectively) as they sing with Gertrude at a never-ending string of churches. The sisters dream of turning eighteen so they can get out from under Gertrude’s zero-tolerance parenting, get married, and start a family.
With her tightly pulled back hair and slight frame, Melanie Loren shines as Clara. Dee Lane was originally cast as the gospel star, but a family tragedy shortly before the show’s preview week called her back to her hometown of Detroit. With seven days to learn the role, Loren deftly channels Clara’s talent, cunning, and constant struggles with her mother, the pressures of the road, impending motherhood, and the alcohol that soothed her troubled soul.
Although several Ward Singers hits are performed in Clara, it is not a revue. Most of the music is original, written by Johnson, George Cooper, and Jaret Williams. Eric Troy plays the entire book on electric piano and makes it sound like a churchy B3 when needed.
The most striking musical moment in Clara is Willa‘s solo on “I Trust In God” (aka “My Heavenly Father Watches Over Me”). Tierra Whetstone, who plays Willa, the lightning rod for her mother’s disappointments, elicited shouts from the audience for her vocal agility. Eric Lewis is a fine singer, portraying Clara’s husband and unborn baby.
Such a tragic story as Clara’s could have used one more uplifting gospel song to soothe the audience. Having the Ward Singers do their hit, Rev. Brewster’s “The Old Landmark,” somewhere in the middle or at the end would have been a fine way to move the crowd from pity to pleasure, if only momentary.
McKinley Johnson’s Clarais a penetrating, provocative look at a blue star that burned out too quickly. The musical runs weekends through August 18, 2013.
For more information and for tickets, visit www.opendoorrep.org or call (708) 342-0810.
Four of Five Stars