The Arkansas Repertory Theatre couldn't have come up with a better way to celebrate its revival.
"Marie & Rosetta" by George Brant raises the rafters with the swinging gospel sound of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It was designed for a "revival tent' on the grounds of Little Rock's War Memorial Park, but the threat of thunderstorms forced the "removal" of Friday's official opening night indoors to the theater at Sixth and Main streets.
Tharpe (Miche Braden), a native of Cotton Plant, Ark., the legendary gospel-swing-proto-rock singer-guitarist, subsequently influenced a generation of musicians including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix.
Here, in 1946, as her career has hit a bit of a snag, she started a partnership with Marie Knight (Johnique Mitchell), a shy, inhibited singer she has lifted out of an obscure opening-act quartet (and whom she has stolen away from "St." Mahalia Jackson). As Marie learns first to swing and then get into Tharpe's swing, they form a bond born of music -- and yes, makeup.
Braden and Mitchell also form a bond onstage that outshines even their musical collaboration -- Mitchell's beautiful voice runs full range from sweet soprano to deep, vivid alto and blends well with Braden's sometimes rather rusty contralto.
The show bogs down a little when the script gets into their personal lives and in the somewhat clumsy epilogue that takes them into the future, culminating in Tharpe's lonely 1973 death in Philadelphia. Otherwise, director Steve H. Broadnax III steers a clear lane between the humorous (frequent) and the mawkish (hardly ever).
The music, however, never is.
Tharpe hits, including "Didn't It Rain," "Tall Skinny Papa" and "Up Above My Head," come out strong. If not every member of the audience was clapping along, most were swinging at least a little in their seats.
The show, about 100 minutes without an intermission, continues, 7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, through Aug. 1, weather permitting, in Little Rock's War Memorial Park. Ticket Information on tickets, reservations and which nights are mask-required is available by calling (501) 378-0405 or online at TheRep.org.