Directed by Ben Harney
Reviewed by Brooke Clariday
Theatre Reviews Limited
“There are two kinds of talent, man-made talent and God-given talent. With man-made talent you have to work very hard. With God-given talent, you just touch it up once in a while.” – Pearl Bailey
Fame, family, devotion, race, relationships, cabaret, feminism and a voice: “Pearl” a new musical written by CB Murray, and performed at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, is a hair-raising testament and biography of the journey of Pearl Mae Bailey. Told through the progression of her career, “Pearl” uncovers the hardships, trials, and fearlessness of the woman who was born gifted, but polishes herself into a timeless star.
“Pearl” tells Bailey’s story with hard-hitting historical accuracy that includes cabaret interruptions by Pearl (songs both classic and original), making for a perfect weave of her professional and personal life. Mixing glamourous red lips, fur and stunning beaded gowns, the production itself creates a juxtaposition of the beauty of Pearl’s talent and appearance, to the anxiety driven life she was facing behind closed doors.
Showing the serious side of Pearl, CB’s script focuses in on one particular theme. Her life and career was surrounded by men who followed her every move. Whether it was a relationship gone wrong or her brother asking her for drug money, Pearl is in a constant battle to not be defined by a man. Showing Pearl’s inner battle with the desire to be married, she is left with three divorces and in the arms of an abusive husband. Using this material, the show is able to showcase Pearl’s strength and transformation.
Ben Harney’s staging leaves the audience alone with Pearl, as she sits at her vanity and looks into a mirror with a powder puff in hand, dabbing at the red swollen mark on her eye. She says “I will never be in an abusive relationship ever again,” and the visual of a girl who was afraid to be alone is gone. In her place is Pearl Bailey, who’s fierceness is striking, and the show takes on another level of importance.
Playing the role of Pearl is the brilliant and stunning Jennie Harney. Her classic and timeless performance of this once in a lifetime role is easily categorized in “must see performances.” She is enchanting; her transformation of Pearl from a teenager, to a young star, to the final destination of Pearl Bailey is so well done, that it is hard to believe it’s the same actress on stage. Understanding every move, line and song she sings, Jennie leaves her heart with this show, with so much passion that she left the national tour of “Motown” to rejoin this musical.
Behind her is a cast of men who take on the deep themes, and multiple character roles, with ease. Their outstanding performances include unbelievable tap numbers played brilliantly Pearl’s brother, Bill Bailey (Dewitt Heming Jr), a cameo by Frank Sinatra (Sean Gorski), and a hilarious performance of Nat King Cole (Thaddus McCants) that leaves the audience howling with laughter. Her final husband Louie Bellson (Stephen Dexter) gives a heartfelt performance as he shows Pearl what it means to love after years of bad relationship.
Louie and Pearl are shown as awe-struck lovers as they take on the journey of becoming an interracial married couple. At the time, this was an unheard offense, one that both of them in some southern states could be arrested for. Their defiance of the law and their love for one another triumphs, and the moment of their kiss send shivers throughout the room. This is a testament to how far we’ve come thanks to the work and dedication of Pearl Bailey and others who fought for equal rights in this country.
“Pearl” is a testament to everything that is good about seeing live theatre, especially an original work. With a script containing the perfect amount of complexity and fun, an amazing cast, and a driving artistic team, anything is possible for this show. It will be devastating to the theatre community if the production of “Pearl” takes its final bow. Given a bigger venue where it could properly shine, the story of Pearl Mae Bailey will hopefully find itself a home after the festival lights dim.