Presented by and at Second Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43 St., NYC, Dec. 3-Jan. 5.
Regina Taylor's exuberant and wonderfully cast musical play about the African-American female tradition of wearing grandiose hats ultimately shapes up as a well-intentioned but somewhat uneven evening of entertainment.
Part of the reason is Taylor's choice to virtually eliminate story and character from this construct. The piece is basically a series of song-and-dance numbers subtly explaining how hats are yoked to stability and self-respect among older, mostly Southern, church-going African-American women. While these numbers are in the most part impressive, without any distinct characterization they seem redundant and almost indistinguishable, notwithstanding the really terrific percussion provided by the ever-pulsating David Pleasant. At about the hour mark, strands of a plot emerge concerning a youngish Brooklyn woman who resists wearing a hat and is frowned upon by her Southern elders. Taylor, however, fails to develop this segment adequately, and the songs again begin to blur as the piece reaches its end.
Taylor has quite a bit more success with her able direction. In fact, the evening is mostly notable as a forum for some brilliant musical theatre performers at total ease on the stage. Lillias White, a Tony winner for "The Life," is still a radiant presence, master comedienne, and exciting singer. Ebony Jo-Ann has a similar command of the stage, and a super-powerful voice as well. Harriett D. Foy, Lynda Gravátt, and Janet Hubert round out the elders perfectly, while Lawrence Clayton is a terrific and hilarious complement to the proceedings as the lone man on stage. And Carmen Ruby Floyd shows style and some subtle dancing skills as Yolanda, the young New Yorker.
Riccardo Hernández's set, consisting of a gigantic series of vertical hat racks that appear to reach the roof of the theatre, is a more-than-impressive frame for this meticulously produced play.