Frenchie Davis in Mahalia
(© Richard Termine)
Frenchie Davis in Mahalia
(© Richard Termine)
If you like your diva sagas with a side of dysfunction -- a penchant, say, for ill-augured liaisons or illicit substances -- then Mahalia may not meet your criteria. In Tom Stolz's bio-musical about the legendary Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson now at Hartford Stage, Jackson sticks -- as she pretty much did in real life -- to the straight and narrow, following a faith-based path that takes her right to the top.

To have Frenchie Davis of American Idol notoriety play this paragon might seem an odd casting choice; Davis was unceremoniously booted off the FOX reality series four years ago when some lingerie ads she'd shot to put herself through Howard College came to light. But in translating her innate sexiness into spiritual passion, Davis proves to be absolutely perfect for the role --straightforward, comfortable, committed, and, above all, blessed like Jackson with a magnificent voice. It's the kind of voice that, as Jackson's good friend Martin Luther King once said of her, "comes along once in a millennium."

The workmanlike script starts in with Jackson's baptism at age 16, as if that's when her real life began (as perhaps, in her view, it did). Born in 1911 into an impoverished New Orleans clan, Jackson was six years old when she lost her mother and was then raised under the strict supervision of her Aunt 'Duke' (Miche Braden, who brings a comic sparkle to a series of female roles, gives this taskmaster just the right mix of crabbiness and covert affection). Her brother (JMichael, playing all the males) supports her plan to study nursing up North, where "Negroes got it better." Duke balks, the brother prevails, and Mahalia -- establishing a pattern for ensuing scenes -- personally thanks her Savior: "That was fast work, Lord."

Jackson's ascent from there proceeds with nary a hitch, even if the northerners don't know what to make of her physicalized style: "all that bouncin' and clappin' and shoutin'," frets a Chicago reverend. So smooth is Mahalia's upward journey toward world renown that there's little in the way of dramatic tension. Still, every time Davis embarks on yet another old standard, you can count on getting chills.

And when JMichael starts declaiming excerpts from Martin Luther King's speeches, they're marrow-stirring. There's just one minor misstep: It's exceedingly hokey to have Jackson, sitting beside the podium during the 1963 March on Washington, prompt King with "Tell 'em about the dream, honey!"

Of course, Jackson's life was not so uniformly blessed. No mention is made in the play of her two failed marriages; unless you knew better, you'd think she'd had all she wanted, traveling the world and spreading the word with her loyal accompanists, pianist Mildred Falls and organist Ralph Jones.

"Gospel," Jackson observes, represents "good news in bad times ... a song of joy so deep, the world can hardly stand it." Even nonbelievers are bound to be moved to their feet by Davis' powerful portrayal.