Angela Wildflower-Polk and Paula Kelly in Crowns
© Craig Schwartz)
Angela Wildflower-Polk and Paula Kelly in Crowns
© Craig Schwartz)
From the moment percussionist Derf Reklaw pounds on his bongos in the overture for Crowns, now at the Pasadena Playhouse, it's evident that this tapestry of monologues, poetry, and music will prove to be a rousing evening in the theater.

Regina Taylor's script, based on a photo essay by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, captures the importance of hats to these church ladies, while forgoing a traditional narrative for a concept musical format where inner monologues reflect the themes and characters. Young individualistic Yolanda (Angela Wildflower Polk) leaves Brooklyn when her brother dies, and goes to stay with her Southern grandmother "Mother Shaw" (Paula Kelly), who inducts Yolanda into the church royalty, where women project their African roots and their sense of empowerment with the hats they wear.

The music, a combination of African tribal music, Hip-Hop, and gospel, all set the appropriate mood, as does the show's structure, which resembles a church service with scenes like Processional, Baptism, and Recessional. While much of the music reflects the emotions of the characters, it doesn't push the story forward as much as one might like. Indeed, particularly in the song-heavy scenes, the music slows the evening down, although director Israel Hicks does his best to keep the story moving at a tight 110 minutes.

The cast is particularly vibrant. Clinton Derricks-Carroll (who plays all the male roles) raises the roof singing "If I Could Touch the Hem of His Garment." He is followed by Sharon Catherine Blanks' mellow "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" which erupts into a scorching passionate finale. Polk is ablaze when she belts out "I've Got Joy Like a Fountain." Meanwhile, Ann Weldon and Kelly stylishly embody the wise church matriarchs, while the elegant Vanessa Bell Calloway and Suzzanne Douglas represent the gossipy next generation.

A lovely interpretive dance of a marriage from wedding to widowhood, performed with grace by Kelly and Derricks-Carroll, is just one of choreographer Keith Young's many strong moments. Musical director Eric Scott Reed and his small but vibrant band give a lift to the score. But ultimately, the show would not fully succeed without the striking bonnets provided by designer Dana Rebecca Woods and worn so nimbly by the cast. Some hats are frilly, with feathers, bright colors and sparkles; while some are understated with a matching bow. But they all are quite lovely.