Sweetee, a young biracial street singer, running away from her alcoholic streetwalker mother, meets liberal white minister Reverend Dan in her home town of Claytonville, South Carolina. He tells her that he has a band made up of four orphans and that she is welcome to join them. Soon after she joins them as lead singer on their hymns, Reverend Dan and his wife Hannah are kicked out of their church due to racial intolerance as all but one of the orphans are African-Americans. He and his Orphanage Band begin a trip to New Orleans where they expect to be accepted, while his wife returns to her father in Philadelphia.
Along the way, they meet Cat Jones and his one-man band, not much older than they are, who gives them some good advice about traveling in the South and what they will find in New Orleans. Cat and Sweetee are attracted to each other but she is very suspicious of any man due to her mother’s experiences.
After a series of unfortunate and unpleasant incidents, they meet up with Cat again who offers them paid employment in New Orleans. Reverend Dan and Sweetee leave the others to travel to a parish house he has been given in New York City. When he crosses a line, she leaves him to work as a companion with the help of Mr. Robinson, the upstanding and compassionate owner of the African–American cemetery in her home town. The story ends in New York five years later at the occasion of the anniversary of Reverend Dan’s New York Parish House Orphanage where all the characters meet up again and have a happy ending.
Jeremiah James has difficulty placing Reverend Dan who seems a bit creepy from the first time we meet him. We are not entirely surprised when he attempts to put the moves on Sweetee when they are alone together. The four-piece band made up of piano, bass, clarinet and trumpet led by Joshua Zecher-Ross unfortunately drowns out a good deal of the singing so that it is difficult to tell whether the young members of the cast have small voices or are done in by the acoustics at the Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
The actors depicting the orphans (who each play an instrument) work hard to bring to life characters that are one-dimensional, though each is different in some other way. In the title role, Jordan Tyson is pugnacious and strong-willed though she doesn’t change over the six years of the story. Jelani Alladin’s Cat Jones is personable and charismatic though he isn’t given much to do. Hugh Cha stands out among the orphans in the band as Abraham, an illiterate and simple Asian boy who grows up in the course of their travels. Morgan Siobhan Green as Hedy, the only other girl in the band, is as feisty and strong willed as Sweetee though not quite as independent. Cedric Cannon as the upright and honest Mr. Robinson reveals a powerful bass-baritone in his few musical numbers. Katy Blake, Katherine Weber and Dave Droxler show versatility playing many Southern church men and women along the way.
The unit set by Tim Mackabee which is made up entirely of wooden slats is appropriate for the early scenes but gets tired trying to suggest so many other locations for the rest of the evening. Tricia Barsamian’s simple costumes are plain for the traveling troupe who are mostly supposed to be wearing thirties hand-me-downs. The lighting by Kirk Bookman is suitable but lacking in atmosphere.
Sweetee is an admirable attempt to depict determination in the face of prejudice in the Deep South 80 years ago. While the cast appears to be older than their characters, they make a valiant attempt to make more out of the material than the show has going for it. Unfortunately, Sweetee seems rather thin considering the possibilities inherent in the story line. The score is pleasant but innocuous and unmemorable, always a deal breaker in a musical. Ironically, the most effective musical numbers are the actual interpolated hymns: “Amazing Grace,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “Joyful, Joyful.”
Sweetee (through June 18, 2017)
Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.sweeteethemusical.com
Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission