The gospel songs and spirituals in the Waco Civic Theatre’s production of “Crowns” are solid and crowd-pleasing, but it’s the stories and sermonettes that turn the musical from Sunday Morning’s Greatest Hits to a memorable look at the women who populate the pews.
While costumer Geneece Arnold’s “crowns” — the elaborate, eye-catching hats worn by many black women in church — are remarkable creations, the actresses who wear those crowns do so with a confidence and dignity that makes them the musical’s centerpiece.
Regina Taylor’s play concerns a young New York woman named Yolanda (Jayla Lane) who moves in with her South Carolinian grandmother Mother Shaw (Hattie McGill) after Yolanda’s brother is shot and killed.
Mother Shaw tries to get her to church for its saving grace and the healing fellowship of her hat-wearing friends, Mabel (Wanda Gunther), Velma (DLR Mayes), Wanda (Ashleigh Sherel) and Jeannette (Ashley Weaver).
The music and fashion prove a culture clash for the headphones-and-cap-wearing Yolanda, still angry and in mourning for her brother, and she fights the sisterhood’s advice and invitation — well, until the power of music, faith and personality prove irresistable.
“Crowns’ ” music, encapsulated in songs like “On The Battlefield For My Lord,” “Wade In The Water” and “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” may pull an audience in, but it’s the stories and insight that Mother Shaw and her friends share that flesh out the characters.
These are women whose hats are proud markers of their love of beauty, their status and a dignity earned in a world working hard to erode it.
Director Tommy Edds, who also leads the music on keyboards, stages the musical in the round. It’s a subtle touch, but one that turns the cast from performers in front of an audience to everyday churchgoers with stories and songs to share.
Gunther commands “Crowns” as preacher’s wife Mabel, who not only tells stories with great wit and timing — her commentary on hat etiquette and young women’s short skirts steal the show — but demonstrates that worshipping God trumps respect for the hat. She’s also a convincing preacher, when hit by the Spirit.
DLR Mayes not only wears some of the production’s most striking hats with suitable flair, but sings that way as well and Sherel isn’t far behind.
Royce Montgomery plays a handful of husbands, fathers and preachers, shifting smoothly between characters and leading the way as a preacher and singer when called for. Some of his roles mirror real life — he’s a pastor and musical performer — which makes him feel all the more natural and believable.
Edds on keyboards, drummer Torie Montgomery (Royce’s daughter) and bassist Michael Donahue ably back the singers with a tight, driving gospel sound, with Edds often playing a quiet R&B/gospel vamp to the stories. This is a trio that would be at home for gospel brunch. A small choir, hidden in the balcony, also adds vocal muscle to some of the bigger numbers.
The minimal set, designed by Bobby Abrahams and Joey Fortune, features individual wooden benches whose sides suggest church pews and video monitors above and to the side of the acting space flash images of southern life, culture and hats. It seems distracting, but in practice acted like an electronic wallpaper helping shape the production’s tone.