In 15 previous reviews of Musicals Tonight! productions, I've neglected to mention the charming way that producer Mel Miller opens each and every one of his shows. He climbs onto the stage, introduces himself, and then offers three or four minutes of background—about the show and its creators, and about the moment in history when this particular revival originated. So we learn, for example, that 1940-41 was the leanest Broadway season up to that time: just Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie, Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark, Gene Kelly in Pal Joey, Al Jolson in Hold on to Your Hats, and of course Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky.
Well, those were certainly the days, eh? The best thing about Miller's work is that he brings the golden age of American musical theatre back to us with modest and unadorned (and unamplified!) concert-style versions of shows that aren't likely to turn up on Broadway but that absolutely deserve a second hearing. Cabin in the Sky exemplifies the Musicals Tonight! ethos: it's got a book of remarkable sophistication (for 1940) that nevertheless wouldn't scan as anything other than a curiosity piece in 2003, all about a pious black woman named Petunia who prays so hard over her dying good-for-nothing husband's body that the Lord decides to give Little Joe six more months to earn his place in heaven. The Lord's General and his counterpart from the Other Place, Lucifer, Jr., do battle for Little Joe's soul, while their earthly representatives, Petunia and the sexy seductress Georgia Brown, duke it out for his body. There's a charming simplicity to it all, but also a certain simplemindedness: Little Joe, in particular, is awfully close kin to Amos 'n' Andy.
Lynn Root's libretto turns out to be the strongest element of Cabin in the Sky. The score, by Vernon Duke and John Latouche, is a string of very pleasant but mostly undistinguished pop tunes. There are a few gems: the title song reaches for greatness, and "Taking a Chance on Love" is catchy and inspiring.
Opening night found the 15-member ensemble less surefooted than in previous Musicals Tonight! premieres, but game and enthusiastic throughout and downright terrific in the rousing choral numbers (both of them traditional spirituals) "Wade in the Water" and "Dat Suits Me." Among the principals, the standouts are Joe Wilson, Jr. as Lucifer, Jr. and Thursday Farrar as Georgia Brown, but then again that's at least partly because naughty characters are always more interesting than nice ones. Romelda T. Benjamin, as one of the devil's henchmen, is loaded with stage presence; Tanya Tatum and especially Joy Harrell, soloists in the chorales, have gorgeous, big voices.