All Eyes Are On the Divine Jannie Jones in “Ethel Waters” at Capital Repertory Theatre’s New Home
There was great anticipation outside what used to be an old Nabisco bakery building on Tuesday night. There was a band playing on the sidewalk and politicians cutting the ribbon and announcing the opening of the new Capital Repertory Theatre at 251 North Pearl Street. A curtain speech from Maggie and then Josh D. Smith stepped out nattily dressed in a horizontally striped vest, sat down at the piano on the upstage right corner of the stage and bellowed out the announcement that appearing tonight at Billy Graham’s Crusade would be Miss Ethel Waters and the divine Jannie Jones was revealed in the light center stage belting “Why should I be discouraged, Why should the shadows come, Why should my heart be lonely, And long for heaven, heaven and home.”
Heaven and home are exactly where we found ourselves. A brand-new $14M dollar theater in the Capital Region and theREP’s first production since March 2020. Miss Jones’ excerpt was from “His Eye is on the Sparrow” which also happened to be the name of her autobiography which is what followed for the next hour and a half. A musical revue of songs associated with Ethel Waters performed with terrific power, joy and delicacy by Jannie Jones (so good in theREP’s productions of “Crowns” and “A Night with Janis Joplin” but especially “Black Pearl Sings”) as she also narrated and acted out Ethel Waters’ life story. She steps down in her purple robe and pillbox hat off the stage Billy Graham invited her to sing on in 1957, crosses left and when she lifts her hat, pigtails fall down and we are in turn of the century Chester, PA where Ethel was born a bastard in 1896.
Hard times and discrimination are a frequent theme in Ethel’s life. There’s one passage where she takes a joy ride with a young man in a car that he didn’t own which includes a terrible crash, an insane asylum, a gruesome description of her leg injury, an escape by train at night and a surgery performed without anesthesia. The book by Larry Parr does not stint on the injustices nor privations Waters suffered and while these are important to understanding her struggles, the evening does become a trying succession of incidents. This happened, and then, and then, and then.
The pigtails get laughs but Jannie Jones hurls herself into the telling of the story and with great energy and imaginative storytelling holds the audience’s attention for long stretches between the 16 songs featured. Director and Artistic Director of theREP, Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, keeps things moving at a brisk pace and individual scenes are set-up quickly using the whole stage with a precise change of lighting by Travis McHale and a piece or two of costume, exceptionally well designed by Florida Studio Theatre and Andrea Adamczyk. Wigs are by Venus Moultrie and are perfect. The set designed by S. Anthony Panfili is three interlocking platforms center stage, three panels hung upstage center which hold neat graphics, projections designed by Nathan Scheuer. There are two or three flats stage right and left painted with brick or floral wallpaper detail. There are architectural elements in the scenery like molding, wainscoting and vents that evoke the world of hotel rooms, dressing rooms and train stations.
The reason we know Ethel Waters is, of course, her music and as good an actress as Jannie Jones is, her singing is superlative. Accompanied on piano by Musical Director and Associate Artist Josh D. Smith who gives excellent support throughout and bangs out a couple boogie woogie solos that garnered extended applause. The songs themselves provide opportunities for this extraordinary performer and each of them becomes a showcase, difficult to choose a favorite from. Her imitation of Sophie Tucker, her big full throated and rounded “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Her fan work on “Dinah.” The delicious held notes in the final line of “Stormy Weather.” The sheer, stage bursting joy of “The Joint is Jumping” abetted by Sue Caputo’s choreography. “Heat Wave” by Irving Berlin had her satirizing Josephine Baker shaking her hips with a basket of fruit on her head and a huge smile on her face. Her giddy “Taking a Chance on Love” with a beaming smile, reflecting on her wedding night to her second husband, “This time I liked it.” Jannie Jones is an enormously appealing performer who is working overtime acting out the story of Ethel Waters’ life but it is her voice that will make your jaw drop. I hope the building remains intact on theREP’s new home because Ms. Jones could easily blow the roof off. Appropriately, she does exemplary work with the finale, Ethel’s signature song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” It will fill you with faith…in the restorative power of theater, if nothing else. And isn’t that enough?