Dance: Broadway Stage and Screen - The Encore! Revival of "Cabin In the Sky" With Camille Brown, Choreographer

Dance: Broadway Stage and Screen - The Encore! Revival of "Cabin In the Sky" With Camille Brown, Choreographer
Walter Rutledge

By Walter Rutledge
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Published on March 3, 2016
Photo: Joan Marcos

Guest Writer, Walter Rutledge Shares his Thoughts Camille Brown's Capturing the Spirit of the Lost Theater Treasure

The New York City Center Encore! revival of the 1940 Broadway musical Cabin In the Sky debuted on January 10th, 2016. Encore! mounts renowned musicals in less than two weeks, and the performers are allowed to “stay on book” (to read lines from the script on stage). The musicals always feature live music and a stellar cast of musical theatre professionals.

The much-anticipated revival starred Tony Award winners LaChanze (2006 Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical- The Color Purple), Chuck Cooper (1997 Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical- The Life) and Norm Lewis (2005 Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a musical- Dessa Rose). LaChanze and Cooper reprised the roles originated by Ethel Waters (Petunia) and Rex Ingram (Lucifer Jr.), the only two performers to appear in both the Broadway production and 1943 MGM film. Carly Hughes, as siren Georgia Brown performed with the right amount of sultry devilment.

Black and White photo of the cast in the original 1943 Broadway production. The ensemble is dressed in all white robes while another cast member wears a halo and angel wings.
Cabin in the Sky with Ethel Waters (1940); Photo credit: unknown

To his credit Encore! Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has done an admirable job of restoring this lost theater treasure, unfortunately the production suffered from sluggish pacing. The musical just didn’t have that extra “something” that sparkles beyond the footlights. However, choreographer Camille A. Brown found a way to connect with the audience; capturing the spirit of the era with a mix of well-staged period dances peppered with her signature energy and movement style.

In Taking A Chance On Love Brown created a fun, upbeat ensemble dance number with unexpected lifts, jumps that effortlessly cascade into the floor, and tap inspired passages. No stranger to period movement, Brown's 2015 Bessie Award winning social commentary work MR. TOL E. RAncE explored media stereotypes from the minstral era to the present day. The production moved through various periods and styles capturing the essence and personality of the times without simply mimicking vernacular dances. Brown's passion for research and attention to detail with MR. TOL E. RAncE may have laid the groundwork for Cabin In The Sky.

In 2014, Brown choreographed the coming-of-age musical about 1970s Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude. Throughout the production a male quartet sang and danced a la Temptations, while foreshadowing the action like a classic Greek chorus with a Motown flare (triple threat Britton Smith was a standout.). Brown again created a natural movement environment, which seamlessly blended staging and dance numbers.

Mr. Tol E. Rance dancers hover in the air looking gleefully. They each wear white gloves
Camille A. Brown's MR. TOL E. RAncE; Photo credit: Christopher Duggan

The original Broadway production of Cabin In The Sky opened on October 25, 1940 at the Martin Beck Theater and successfully ran for 156 performances, closing on March 8, 1941. Stanley Green described the musical as a "parable of Southern Negro Life with echoes of Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom (which would be turned into the musical Carousel) and Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures. Despite the show’s success the production was plagued with plenty of backstage drama.

The director (George Balanchine) composer (Vernon Duke) and designer (Boris Aronson) were three strong-willed Russians. The trio would openly argue during rehearsals leaving the African-American cast to artistically fend for themselves. J. Rosamond Johnson, who had a small role, trained the singing chorus. While Katherine Dunham, who played Georgia Brown, led her dancers and assisted Balanchine with the choreography.

A black and white still from the movie Cabin in the Sky. The stars congreate around a table. A man and woman look incredulously at woman who is seated at the table wearing an evening gown and feather wrap.
Cabin in the Sky (film); Courtesy of MGM

MGM studio was looking for an inexpensive all-black musical, and despite their fears of being boycotted by segregated Southern theater chains released Cabin In The Sky in 1943. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the film starred Waters, Ingram, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson and Lena Horne. It was Horne's first and only leading role in an MGM musical. Louis Armstrong was also featured as the Trumpeter, one of Lucifer Junior's minions, and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra have a showcase musical number.

The film enlisted composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg to streamline the musical numbers. The duo eliminated some numbers and added others; including Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe sung by Ethel Waters, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The Domino Johnson character (played by 'Bubbles' John W. Sublett) was given a lively song and dance number Shine directed by an uncredited Busby Berkley. The film was both an artistic and financial success.

Despite the success of the film, Cabin In the Sky became a footnote at MGM and remained unavailable to the public until released on DVD in 2006. The original theatrical production also disappeared, possibly due to public backlash of the perceived stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans. The Encore! revival dispels this notion, presenting a charming production from a bygone era in American theatre history.  

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A Look Back in History:

See The Cast From The Movie: Cabin In The Sky:


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