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Hats off to Goodman for Chicago’s best ‘Crowns’ production yet



When: Through Aug. 12

Where: Goodman Theatre,
170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $29-$88

Info: (312) 443-3800;

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Updated: August 11, 2012 6:06AM

A Stephen Sondheim lyric famously asked, “Does anyone still wear a hat?”

Well, those ladies who lunched in posh New York restaurants may have abandoned the habit decades ago. But for the church-going African-American women of Darlington, S.C. — the solid but salty population of “Crowns,” the fervent, gospel-driven musical by Regina Taylor now at the Goodman Theatre — the hat is most definitely where it’s at. And it is far more than a fashion statement (though it is THAT, too). It is an identifier, a status symbol, an essential rite-of-passage prop, a signifier, a testimony, a memory bank, a prized possession, a nod to a higher power and, just as crucially, to the power inside.

I confess: Since its debut a decade ago I’ve seen two versions of Taylor’s show (adapted from the handsome book of photographs and oral histories by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry) and can’t say I was totally wowed on either occasion. But this time around is different. Not only has Taylor gathered some of the finest black divas in Chicago (and beyond) for her cast, but she and choreographer Dianne McIntyre — in league with musical director Fred Carl and a sensational design team (Karen Perry’s marvelous costumes have lives of their own) — have found more fluid, richly theatrical ways to animate the stories told by all these women with “hattitude.”

Also, the sad truth is that Taylor’s frame for her story — in which Yolanda (Marketta P. Wilder), a hip-hop-infused high school girl from Englewood, devastated by the murder of her beloved brother, is sent down South to live for a year with her hymn-singing grandmother (the indomitable Felicia P. Fields) — has been made exceptionally relevant by the recent spike in senseless, youthful homicides on the mean streets of Chicago.

Not surprisingly, Yolanda goes through a rough period of adjustment in Darlington. But of course she is gradually transformed by the ways and the wisdom of her elders — women whose hat collections and hat etiquette come boxed in a slew of personal stories taking us from the spiritual to the splendiferous, Jim Crow days to the civil rights movement, airless country churches to black college towns, and baptisms to funerals.

Along the way there are traditional songs, gospel classics, a few original pieces and bits of rap. There is a whole lot of motion (with Ailey alum Yusha-Marie Sorzano whipping through the work like a hot wind). And there is a whole lot of personality.

Among the standouts is Alexis J. Rogers, the little spitfire with the glorious voice (she was Bess in Court Theatre’s “Porgy and Bess”), who is a true star in the making. Her take on “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” is sublime. But she’s got plenty of support from the likes of E. Faye Butler (a great comic force who also flirts with jazz); Jasondra Johnson (as the good-time girl who has gone straight), and Pauletta Washington.

David Jennings is superb in multiple roles, playing a variety of preachers, husbands, fathers and more. And the singing and dancing chorus (Shari Addison, Melanie Brezill, Kelvin Roston Jr. and Laura Walls) creates a mighty circle of power.

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