08 march 2013

Mahalia Jackson comes to life in Canada's Ranee Lee


Photo by George Allister courtesy of the Segal Centre.
Ranee Lee as Mahalia Jackson with members of the IGS Choir in the background.

Roger Peace wrote and directed The Mahalia Jackson Musical, which premiered this week at Montreal’s Segal Centre Theatre.  The production, featuring a gospel choir of 14, is enjoying great reviews with jazz singer Ranee Lee lending her soul to the words and music of the great Mahalia, the American black woman who refused to sing anything but gospel, and never in a club or a tavern.

The show follows the chapters of Mahalia Jackson’s life from her humble childhood in New Orleans to her move to Chicago and her growing ambition to do more than other people’s laundry and cleaning.  It’s interesting to watch the development of her relationship with her voice and her talent as well as the people in her life. 

Roger Peace says his writing process always begins with the music, but writing this story presented a different challenge as Mahalia Jackson was “squeaky clean.”  In his research he didn’t find the drama and pain that were integral to the lives of some of the other great female singers he’s written about such as Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf.

But there is an amazing moment, the high point of Mahalia Jackson’s life as Roger Peace says, when she joins Martin Luther King Jr. on the mall that memorable day in Washington.  And just as she finishes her song, she turns to him and tells him to tell the people about his dream!  And so begins one of the greatest speeches of the modern era.

Roger Peace is happy to have The Mahalia Jackson Musical up and running. Staging it again during Montreal’s International Jazz Festival, this year or next is a possibility.  But for Roger Peace the ultimate goal is Broadway.  He says it is his remaining ambition.

Ranee Lee, pianist Taurey Butler and the IGS Choir in The Mahalia Jackson Musical.  Photo by G. Allister, courtesy of the Segal Centre

For his muse, Ranee Lee, it would be a wonderful homecoming.  Born in New York City, Ranee Lee has made Montreal her home base while touring the world with her jazz standards.  Ranee Lee is a Juno-award winner for her album, Ranee Lee Lives Upstairs, and honored as a Member of the Order of Canada for her contribution to our cultural scene.  Her album, Maple Groove, features her smooth jazz renditions of great Canadian classics from Gordon Lightfoot’s If I Could Read Your Mind, to Joni Mitchell's, Both Sides Now.

In The Mahalia Jackson Musical, Ranee Lee delivers hard to forget Gospel tunes and the story is another chapter in an American history most audiences are eager to discover.

Carmel Kilkenny speaks with Roger Peace about The Mahalia Jackson Musical.
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