A tip of the hat to McCarter Theatre Center’s uplifting ‘Crowns’

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Cast members of “Crowns,” which is at the McCarter Theatre Center through April 1.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what “Crowns” is. It’s not exactly a musical. You could call it a play with music — both familiar, traditional gospel songs, Broadway-ish tunes written just for the show, and some rap — but there’s so much more music than speech here, that that’s inadequate.

“Concert with a narrative” is maybe the closest you could come to nailing it down.

But whatever category it fits in, “Crowns” — which is currently winding up its run at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton — is a wonder. You’d have to be made of stone not to be caught up in the rush of its glorious song, or wilted by the central tale of a young woman’s hard climb to adulthood.

This is the second time “Crowns” has appeared at the McCarter; the show was originally commissioned by the theater’s artistic director, Emily Mann, back in 2003. She engaged playwright Regina Taylor to pull a theatrical piece out of a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, looking at the history and the importance of the go-to-church hats of African-American women. The story follows a young Chicago woman who is sent to stay with her grandmother, a “hat queen,” in the deep South, after her brother is killed in a drug deal gone wrong.

But like “Quilters” before it, that overarching narrative is less important than using the art of hats as a way for a group of women to talk about their heritage, their struggles and the beauty they found in lives that were never easy.

Gabrielle Beckford in “Crowns.”

“Crowns” was a hit then, and now it’s back for its 15th anniversary, updated so our young heroine Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford) spits bars, not songs of praise. There’s more than a bit of a nod to “Hamilton” here, with one line lifted from that musical wholesale. (It’s a line Lin-Manuel Miranda lifted from Mobb Deep, so fair’s fair, I suppose.)

Beckford is a fierce dancer and a fine rapper; my one quarrel with this production was that I wished she didn’t have to do both at the same time quite so often. It was hard to focus on her words when she was flying around the stage, knees and elbows jabbing.

But her performance, though fine, is almost secondary. You pretty much know going in that she’s going to resist her grandmother’s “Hat Queen Rules,” then mature and embrace them. It’s still a moving process, but it’s a given. The real joy here is in the stories told, and the songs sung, by Shari Addison as Mother Shaw, and her quartet of friends: Rebecca Covington as the kindly Jeannette, Latice Crawford as the big sister-ish Velma, Danielle K. Thomas as the stalwart Mabel, and particularly Stephanie Pope as the unapologetic, flirtatious Wanda.

These women sing beautifully, and they dance so infectiously that you’ll be hard pressed to sit still. Often the stories they tell are sorrowful — marriages ending or souring, financial struggles — but their music is always uplifting.

Their stories can blend together a little bit, but Crawford in particular carves out a distinct character for her Velma — goofy, rebellious, sexy, funny. At one point she gets a big laugh while standing with her back to the audience, humming a tune, just by flexing her shoulders. And when she turns around, with her wide cheekbones and wider smile, and that smooth, clear voice, she will remind you almost painfully of Whitney Houston in her prime. Her performance of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” is worth the price of admission alone.

Needless to say, costuming plays a huge role in this piece: Emilio Sosa’s costumes are spectacles themselves, particularly the hats, each one a feat of engineering, aerodynamics and style. The best one actually comes apart and, when its two pieces are reversed and stuck back together, becomes an entirely different hat.

And while the subject of the play is the community and solidarity of women facing hard times, it must be said that one of the most arresting performances is given by Lawrence Clayton, billed simply as “Man.” It’s a multifaceted role: Clayton plays every father, boyfriend, husband and son the female characters discuss in their recollections, as well as the Reverend of the church service that is the play’s overarching setting.

In every painstakingly individualized role, he’s magnetically watchable — but never more so than when, near the play’s end, he plays one woman’s 80-something grandfather and then, in the next beat, Yolanda’s slain college-age brother, Teddy. The transition from one character to the next is silent and manifested solely through Clayton’s shift in posture and movement as he walks upstage. His joyful senior citizen’s hesitant shuffle and upraised arms become the teen’s low-slung shoulders and smooth, slow lope. It’s just a breathtaking moment.

Another man’s performance also merits notice: Percussionist, guitarist and vocalist David Pleasant. Credited as a “Drumfolk Riddim Specialist,” Pleasant is set up on the side of the stage. He plays at least one instrument and sings throughout the entire show; I don’t think I caught him sitting down once. His voice, music and sound effects elevate every scene.

“Crowns” ends its run at the McCarter this weekend. Better catch it: You may have to wait another 15 years to leave a theater feeling this good again.

“Crowns” will be at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through April 1; visit mccarter.org.

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