The Mahalia Jackson Musical has hit the stage at The Segal Theatre with a story of perseverance, faith…and joyous song. It is a celebration of the courage and tenacity of a people, their survival, their history and the music that came out of those trying times – Gospel.

If you are expecting just the music, although it is the music and Jackson that are the focus of the show, you are in for a surprise.  We are taken through a wonderful learning process on the subjugation of a people and the Freedom Movement. but… without being hammered over the head with facts. We are gently led along a timeline A time in American history that should be remembered by those who lived it and by those who are now living a better life because of people like Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

All that due to the sensitivity of playwright, Roger Peace, who has also inserted touches of comedy in the writing played to the hilt by the actors. People living through some of history’s most horrendous times have found moments of comedy to be a saving grace. Peace’s writing draws on the senses strongly. A scene in which both Jackson and Aunt Duke are talking about food has you almost salivating, smelling what they are talking about. Peace has managed to bring to light the suffering of Jackson without dwelling on it, balancing it with the Gospel music that she so loved.

Peace’s direction is consistent, clean, imaginative and utterly sensitive – a fine interpretation of his own work. A difficult combination of writing and directing, not always easily attained.

Ranee Lee (Mahalia Jackson) is outstanding. Switching from her comfortable niche of Jazz, she has captured the very essence in sound and movement of the lady considered to be The Queen of Gospel. Lee also plays directly to the audience with her storytelling, cajoling that audience to join in – to clap, sway. She does so with such panache. She moves from a young girl through to old age with grace, ending up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day in 1963 – with Martin Luther King.

Tristan D. Lalla (Uncle Porter, Josie Burnette, Ike, Martin Luther King), has created clearly defined characters in all four roles he plays. No change in makeup: a hat for one, no hat for another, perhaps a different sweater. Simple as that. (Note his dexterity in character change as he moves from his entrance as elderly Uncle Porter, to a young man doing Ball in the Jack.) His Martin Luther King is powerful (very near to sound and cadence to the real man) and is evocative of a time of revolution and change for us all.  

Adrienne Mei Irving (Aunt Duke, Jeanette Jackson, Aunt Hannah, Woman at the
March), also moves flawlessly from one character to another. The end of act one has her joining in as Aunt Duke, a-movin’ and a-swayin’ in the Mardis Gras. She is warm and wonderful, especially after we hear her threatening to take a cat-o-nine tails to ‘Halie’. Irving deftly brings to the stage two distinct characteristics of the woman who brought up young Jackson – the strict disciplinarian and the woman who truly cared about the little girl in her charge.

Not everyone believed in Jackson’s need to sing Gospel. There’s a revealing scene when she tells Aunt Hannah, “I just want to share my luck and happiness”. She is told, “…stop your black arrogance…You are a black woman living in a white man’s world…Take it or leave it…You’re acting like a Coloured who wants to be White”. (There was a soft gasp from the audience.)  

There is a 3 piece band on stage for the Gospel Choir. Taurey Butler  accompanies Lee with her solos. The IGS Choir, led by Marcia Bailey, is onstage all the time, lending background sound to some of the pieces and also, full, blown out Gospel singing. The end of Act 1 is a foot stompin’, hand clapping piece where everyone lets loose with, When the Saints Go Marchin’ In, The Battle of Jericho and Old Time Religion.

Peter Spike Lyne’s lightening design is spiritual and supportive. (I particularly liked one scene in which each member of the choir, including Lee sought out one spotlight to sing from.) It compliments Jean Claude Olivier’s seemingly simple set that allows 20 people to be on stage at one time, yet it never appears crowded.

The Mahalia Jackson Musical is an event not to be missed – it is a history of a people, a story of a woman who overcame poverty to bring to the world the Gospel music she so loved.

Schools, churches and people who love a musical sound that portrays so much soul and optimism must see this show! It will lift your spirit and lighten your heart – And yes, feel free to clap and move to the joyous sound of Mahalia Jackson, so wonderfully captured by Lee.     

The Mahalia Jackson Musical is on at The Segal Theatre until March 24.
Box Office: 514-739-7944 or

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