When you enter the auditorium in the Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington, it’s immediately clear that Bridge Players Theater Company’s production of CROWNS will not be your average evening at the theater. Tables are set up throughout the auditorium, circling a modest round stage with hat racks positioned at the corners. The hat racks hold several hats, ranging from modest pillboxes to feathered wide-brimmed masterpieces. All the hats get their time in the spotlight, and by the end of the show, it seems they deserve their round of applause as much as the women who bring them to life.
CROWNS is a nontraditional musical, weaving the traditional hymns of Christian masses into a story of a granddaughter, Yolanda (Trystan Johnson), shipped out of Brooklyn after her brother’s death to live with her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Lois Key-Alexander), in North Carolina. Together with the ladies of her church and her pastor (Steve Browne, who portrays all the roles for men in the show adeptly), Mother Shaw helps Yolanda reconnect with her African-American Baptist roots through the unexpected power of church hats, or their “crowns.” The cast spends the entire show singing almost nonstop, whether it’s a solo or harmonizing in the background providing depth to others’ songs. It’s a daring choice for a theater company, as it feels more like a gospel revival than a traditional musical, but it’s a risk that brings a great reward for the faithful in the audience.
The abstract plotline finds ways to bring the audience to laughter and tears at separate times, and the ladies (and man!) of this cast bring their obvious passion to enhance the story. Lois Key-Alexander, as Mother Shaw, uses her real-life experience as a Christian ministry leader to anchor this cast. It’s impressive that she has very little theater experience, given her powerful voice and capable acting. Trystan Johnson shows promise as the feisty Yolanda, throwing sidelong glances packed with attitude at every opportunity. While it’s clear that these church voices grew weary by the end of the performance, their emotional attachment to the show continued to shine, especially in the hilarious monologues by Gwen Ricks-Spencer as Mabel and the commanding singing of Carla Ezell as Wanda.
More than anything, this short musical (the run time is two hours, and the traditional Bridge Players dessert is served afterwards in lieu of having an intermission) is a show of Christian devotion and the rich history of strong African-American women. The cast bring their personal fervor to the performance and it becomes contagious to the audience, most especially those in the Christian faith who remember these songs from Sunday services. Although it’s not for everyone, for those who can connect with the material, CROWNS is a passionate show that shouldn’t be missed.
by Regina Taylor
Directed by Bernard DeCasimirro
May 3-19, 2013
Bridge Players Theater Company
Broad Street United Methodist Church
36 East Broad Street
Burlington, NJ 08016