Sweetee, directed and choreographed by Patricia Birch, opens tonight at Pershing Square Signature Center.
Sweetee, directed and choreographed by Patricia Birch, opens tonight at Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Perhaps it was a bit hasty for the producers of Sweetee to invite reviewers to see this new musical at the Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center. It's not that the piece, with book, music, and lyrics by Gail Kriegel and direction and choreography by Patricia Birch, is lousy. Actually, this well-intentioned little show lives up to its title. But this mounting is pretty obviously a workshop more than anything else, and asking critics to review something that very clearly isn't finished is unfair to all of the artists involved. Still, there's a lot to cherish in this piece, which still needs work but is on the right track.

The title character is Sweetee herself (Jordan Tyson), a young biracial street singer desperate to escape the physical and psychological confines of her prostitute mother (Katy Blake). Soon, she meets Reverend Dan (Jeremiah James) and his wife, Hannah (Katherine Weber), who adopt her into their ragtag band of orphans (Adante Carter, Hugh Cha, Morgan Siobhan Green, and Amir Royale). They rescued these youngsters from poverty and trained them as musicians. As Reverend Dan and the kids travel the "steamy south" on the road to New Orleans (where they're hoping to strike it rich as performers), they meet Cat Jones (Jelani Alladin), a charismatic fellow musician who takes the troupe under his wing.

The first act of Sweetee is a simultaneous mix of too much and too little expository information, with songs coming and going in snippets. But once Cat Jones comes on stage, the show takes off. The music gets more rousing and varied, and the book itself gets stronger as Kriegel begins to develop a slow-burning but thoroughly appealing love story between Sweetee and Cat. (It helps that Tyson, in her off-Broadway debut, is a real charmer, and Alladin, who will be seen in Denver later this summer as Kristoff in the Broadway-bound stage version of Disney's Frozen, has charisma to spare.)

The second act, however, plays more like an outline than a fully fleshed out story, jumping from event to event without much dialogue. The weakest aspect is the treatment of Reverend Dan, a kindly figure in the first act who, out of nowhere, becomes reprehensibly sinister during the second. This twist negates just about every redeeming quality of a character who, for three-quarters of the piece, is an upright person. James does the best he can to navigate these waters, and the turn of events that take place are simply jarring.

Birch, best known for choreographing the film and original stage version of Grease, has staged the show in a presentational style, with a set of wooden planks by Tim Mackabee to match the bare-bones aesthetic. Tricia Barsamian's costumes, Kirk Bookman's lighting, and Doug Katsaros' orchestrations, on instruments ranging from the trumpet to washboard, nicely capture the milieu of the time period.

Ultimately, Sweetee is about the undeniable power that music has to change people's lives — and that important subject does take center stage. While the show is a cheerfully optimistic piece that encourages audiences to dream big, with the right amount of work, it has the potential to do the same.