"Dream big," could be the tagline for Sweetee: a new musical by Gail Kriegel set for a limited premiere engagement at The Pershing Square Signature Center. Directed by Tony nominee and two-time Emmy Award winner Patricia Birch, Sweetee tells the story of a free-thinking reverend and his band of orphans in the Depression-era South.
"Band" isn't figurative; Reverend Dan's orphans are young musicians, initially playing jazzed up hymns but eventually transitioning to New Orleans style swing numbers. Following his impulse to "dream big," Reverend Dan takes his group on the road, trying to show the world that children from the streets can rise above their backgrounds. The first step is shaking free of backwoods Claytonville, where the reverend's white congregation objects to his "almost all colored orphanage band." Another step is enlisting Sweetee: a young street singer with the vocal talent to propel the little band to stardom.
Something like a cross between School of Rock and Dreamgirls in the 1930s and '40s South, Sweetee is a fun, heart-warming musical with a score drawn from Dixieland style jazz. Instruments include everything from a washboard and kazoo to a saxophone and violin. As you might expect from a musical that's mainly about making music, the score is by far the best thing about Sweetee. And it's definitely a show in which the music takes center stage - the play often feels like it's all built around the musical numbers. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially when the music is as fun as Sweetee's is.
Still, I could have wished for a little more story at times, and some further character development might not have been a bad idea. For example, a death in the first half of the play came about so suddenly that I hardly had time to register it, and there was a scene in the second act that I felt was out of character for both Reverend Dan and Sweetee.
But for the most part, Sweetee rolls along at a nice pace, featuring characters who are lovable underdogs, and, like I said, a jazzy score that's a lot of fun. Onstage actors play their own instruments (backed by a 5-person supporting band in the wings) and most of the cast are also powerful vocalists. Among these, Katherine Weber and Jordan Tyson (the latter in the title role) stand out. Another dynamic singer and dancer is Jelani Alladin, who plays Cat Jones - a traveling musician who helps the orphans become full-fledged professionals.
In an intimate setting and quasi-immersive staging (two seats in the front row of the audience are often occupied by cast members, and there's some action in the wings), Sweetee brings the audience face to face with issues like poverty and bigotry; but it also sweeps you straight into the heart of jazz, familial and friendly love, and, of course, a slew of big dreams.