‘Marie and Rosetta’: Musical legends come to life

Pier Lamia Porter and Lovely Hoffman as Marie Knight and Sister Rosetta Tharpe in “Marie and Rosetta.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios

STONEHAM – Since it opened in Cleveland in September 1995 on the shores of Lake Erie, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been playing a lot of catch-up.

The Hall was slow to pick up on those pioneers who set the stage for Elvis, Little Richard, Ray Charles and others who would come later who were obvious choices to be included when the museum was founded.

One of those who finally found her way to Cleveland and The Hall was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a singer, songwriter, guitarist and recording artist largely considered “The Godmother of Rock and Roll,” who was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

Along with Marie Knight, the duo were part of the foundation of rock and roll and influenced other great artists.   Still, they ended up largely forgotten after once playing to thousands in baseball stadiums.

Playwright George Brant brought their story to life with the 2016 play “Marie and Rosetta,” now enjoying its New England premiere through Nov. 10 at the Greater Boston Stage Company in a co-production of the GBSC and the Front Porch Arts Collective, the Boston-based African-American theater company now in its second season.

Playwright Brant is a master storyteller, as anyone who has had the chance to see his critically-acclaimed portrayal of Buddy Cianci, “The Prince of Providence,” at the Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence knows.  

He has taken their relationship and accomplishments, obviously based in fact, and used it as a jumping-off point to craft a take on how the pair’s first rehearsal in a modest funeral parlor showroom in Mississippi in 1946 might have gone down, just before embarking on a years-long international tour together.

Brant will use a later plot twist to pull the encounter in another direction.

Ah, the music. Lovely Hoffman as Rosetta and Pier Lamia Porter as Marie both have lovely voices, but it wouldn’t work if the two disparate voices didn’t meld together to make beautiful music together under the guidance of music director Erica Telsinor, who plays the piano, accompanied by Marquis Lewis on guitar.

Fortunately, the voices meld beautifully. And, while Brant’s piece serves as a primer on the two largely-forgotten pioneers, it is when the two women pick up their instruments and begin to praise The Lord or go off in another direction that the play really takes off.

The musical numbers include “This Train,” the gospel standard “Were You There”, and Rosetta’s signature hit, “Tall Skinny Papa.”

Although the two were married to husbands they laughingly called “squirrels,” they also eventually shared a romantic relationship, which they understandably kept under wraps at the time.

From their roots in swing and gospel, they began rocking out, especially when Rosetta is introduced to the joys of the electric guitar.

Rosetta picked up an electric guitar – unheard of those days – and began to rock the houses where she played,

There are also stories of what the pair had to endure even at the peak of their success, as the segregation of The South resigned them to sleeping on their tour bus or in the houses of friends.

In her program notes, director Pascale Florestal said that when she is first introduced to people of color whose stories have been lost, she often finds herself “shocked” and feels “shame” about her ignorance.

She called it “an honor and a pleasure” to tell the story of two musical legends and icons.

Rosetta and Marie toured for years and Rosetta went on to tour for many years afterwards after they split. Rosetta died in Philadelphia in 1973, buried in an unmarked grave, having gone from livin’ large to largely forgotten.

The GBSC and Front Porch make the duo of “Marie and Rosetta” a story well told, theatrically and musically, and worthy of your attention.

The Greater Boston Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective production of George Brant’s “Rosetta and Marie.” Directed by Pascale Florestal. Scenic design by Baron E. Pugh. Lighting design by Kathleen Zhou. Sound design by John Stone. Costume design by Michelle Villada. Music direction by Erica Telsinor.  At the Front Porch Arts Collective through Nov. 12. Greaterbostonstage.org