A legendary musical duo not always fully appreciated for its groundbreaking contributions is getting its due with a rousing, toe-tapping, tear-jerking production at Theatresquared.
“Marie and Rosetta” takes place almost entirely over the course of one night, during the brash, bodacious Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s first rehearsal with her new protege, timid, demure gospel singer Marie Knight. Tharpe, an iconic gospel and blues singer and guitarist known as the “godmother of rock and roll,” plucked Knight from relative obscurity in 1946 and together the two became a musical powerhouse that would lay the groundwork for multiple musical genres and inspire artists including Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
The roof-raising musical, written by George Brant, explores the fascinating musical and personal connection between the two icons through the lens of night in which they are just beginning to feel each other out prior to taking the stage at a tent revival in Tharpe’s native Cotton Plant, Arkansas.
Every aspect of T2’s production is pretty much perfect. The acting prowess of and chemistry between Miche Braden and Johnique Mitchell, playing Tharpe and Knight, is undeniable, and their compelling vocals are beyond impressive. Both are excellent in every soaring, soulful, tent-shaking gospel, R&B and rock number they perform, but Mitchell especially shines in the “I Heard my Mother Praying for Me,” and Braden’s “How Far From God” is a staggering showstopper.
The actresses’ powerful vocal performances are backed up by strong piano and guitar accompaniment from local musicians Matt Nelson and Jordan Strickland, a UA alumnus.
The set design for T2’s production, though simple, was inspired. The stage is relatively bare, with just a piano, a few crates and some guitar cases as props. The backdrop consists of a larger-than-life poster advertising the tent revival, and translucent curtains that reveal the musicians sitting backstage at strategic moments.
The best part of the design, by far, is the golden string lights hanging from the center of the West Theatre’s ceiling and radiating outward over the seats and stage, creating the illusion that the audience is inside a festively lit tent with the two stars. The effect turns the larger of the facility’s two theaters into a much more intimate-feeling space, perfect for a production as warm, tender and uplifting as this one.
At T2, the inspiring story of “Marie and Rosetta” is told through sublime performances by a perfectly chosen team of actresses and musicians who work in harmony to bring history to life. This production of the stirring musical certainly does justice to the complicated, inspiring story of two of music’s greatest pioneers, and the show is a must-see for locals of all ages.
“Marie and Rosetta” runs through Dec. 12 in the West Theatre at TheatreSquared. In-person and streaming tickets are available online. As part of T2’s 30 Under 30 program, 30 tickets to each performance are set aside at a price of $10 for students and those under 30.