MONTREAL — Get ready to clap your hands, stomp your feet and raise the roof.
The Segal Centre presents “The Mahalia Jackson Musical,” an original musical production that explores the life of the iconic gospel singer. It stars Montreal jazz vocalist Ranee Lee in the title role.
“This is a memory piece,” said writer and director Roger Peace.
The tale spans five decades and begins with Jackson’s early years in New Orleans.
“She was born dirt poor in 1911 in a shack she shared with 13 siblings and relatives,” Peace said. “And she rose to become the Queen of Gospel; a major force in the civil-rights movement, along with Martin Luther King Jr.; and a friend of kings and queens and politicians all over the world.”
The story continues to show Jackson as she would be in 1963 at the civil-rights march on Washington.
“We finish on that high point,” Peace said. “She was right next to Martin Luther King in front of the Lincoln Memorial on that day.”
Peace adds an interesting side note to that famous day in history.
“Mahalia was on the platform and had just finished singing a song,” Peace said. “Martin stepped forward to do his speech.”
Peace says that Jackson saw King looking at some notes.
“She went over to him and said, ‘Martin, why don’t you tell them about your dream?’”
Peace adds that King had said his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech before on other occasions.
“But if she had not said that, who knows, maybe he would not have said that speech on that day.”
Peace has also penned other stage works about Edith Piaf, Sophie Tucker and Judy Garland.
“I have a bit of history writing about famous women entertainers.”
The writing muse struck once again, and Peace was looking for a new subject.
“It’s quite remarkable when you listen to the music that Mahalia recorded,” Peace said. “The problem is when you do Billie Holiday or Piaf, you also have drugs, prostitution and drinking.”
Not so when the subject turned to Mahalia.
“She was squeaky clean,” Peace said. “So this show is about the music.”
Peace says that when he writes, he wants to entertain and inform people. That said, he won’t mind if the audience forgets some of the dialogue.
“The music you won’t forget.”
Peace says his work about Edith Piaf even made it to Off-Broadway. He has equally high hopes for Mahalia.
“This one might make it because it will appeal to a larger audience,” he said. “This is a roof-raising, foot-stomping, musical event.”
In addition to Lee in the title role — “and she is outstanding,” said Peace — the work is accompanied onstage by a nine-singer gospel choir. Peace said the work comes complete with plenty of familiar songs, including “Summertime,” “Bless This House,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Down by the Riverside” and “We Shall Overcome.”
“These are very well-known songs that you may not necessarily associate with Mahalia. I just hope that the audience will be entertained, enjoy the music and learn a little bit about her. She was an important part of the civil-rights moment. She’s an important part of history.”
As for the gospel take?
“Oh, I think that’s what people are coming for,” Peace said. “There are some poignant moments as well. But they’re coming for a good time.”
“The Mahalia Jackson Musical” officially opens tonight and continues through March 24.
Also on now at the Studio, the Segal’s Centre’s second stage, and a nice jazzy tie-in to “Mahalia,” is the Power Jazz Series, a series of jazz concerts in an intimate setting.
Upcoming concerts include the Quasar Saxophone Quartet on March 24; vocalist Kim Richardson, also on March 24; and the Mark Fewer Quartet featuring Jim Doxas, Jim Vivian and John Novacek on April 14. Power Jazz Series tickets cost $15.
The Segal Centre for Performing Arts is at 5170 Chemin Cote St. Catherine. Adult tickets range cost $46 to $51 depending on day and time of performance. Discounts are available for seniors and students, and those 30 and under. Call (514) 739-7944 or visit www.segalcentre.org.
Take Autoroute 15 North (I-87 after the border) and continue over the Champlain Bridge. Take exit 66, Cote St. Luc/Queen Mary and continue on the Decarie Expressway service road for about five minutes. Turn right on Chemin Cote Ste. Catherine. The Segal Centre is two blocks on your right.
Steven Howell is the author of Montreal Essential Guide, a Sutro Media iPhone travel app available at iTunes.com.