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June 5, 2017
Review: Sweetee
Jelani Aladdin, Jordan Tyson & Cast of Sweetee. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

"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.

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Interview: Jeremiah James on How His Character in ‘Sweetee’ Helps Him Make Sense of Our World

By Jose Solis

In Sweetee, Jeremiah James plays Reverend Dan the pastor who wants the kids in his orphanage to find hope through music, as long as they stick to the hymns and songs of praise he approves of. When he meets the talented Sweetee (Jordan Tyson) who has a knack for trouble and a voice made for soul music, he finds himself at odds between what he knows is right, and what his pride tells him should be done. With his imposing physical presence (if they ever turn Mad Men into a musical look no further for your Don Draper) and fantastic voice, James makes Reverend Dan a complex character the likes of which should make audiences discuss the show long after they see it. We spoke to the actor about the challenges of playing a character unafraid to show his flaws, how making art helps him understand the world, and his stint in the longest running musical of all time. I saw the third performance of the show, when do you know you’re all set in the character? Usually by the second preview. Once I know how the audience is going to react, sorta since all audiences are different, I feel like I’ve settled. Why did you want to play Reverend Dan? To be perfectly honest they didn’t have a finished script …Read more

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Written by: Erin Kahn
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