The Women of Brewster Place almost have their act together 

Maybe it's because I've endured a dozen works-in-progress musicals over the last few years. Or maybe it's because funky gospel and '70s soul always put me in a good mood. Or maybe I'm just damn happy to finally see black women onstage who aren't drowning in the floodwaters or singing about their hats. Whatever the reason, I found myself grinning through much of the Unicorn's production of the (very) work-in-progress musical The Women of Brewster Place. It was like watching a baby colt trying to haul itself up onto its spindly legs: cute and unlikely, with me wanting to shout encouragement and suggestions.

Suggestions like, "No, baby musical! Let more than 90 seconds pass between that giddy Midsummer Night's Dream disco production number and that lowdown gospel funeral march mourning a child." Or, "Yikes! Don't bathe the bereaved mother in purple light and set her half-naked and staring in a claw-foot bathtub. Haven't you seen the 'When Doves Cry' video?"

Written by Tim Acito and based on Gloria Naylor's novel, The Women of Brewster Place makes heroes of everyday women in a housing project who come together, tentatively and with amusing squabbles, to take back their neighborhood. It digs into their lives, with story songs and abbreviated scenes, finding things to love even in its stereotypes. It offers some fine musical-theater riffs on the Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder songbooks. It hits you with a couple of gospel roof-raisers. (The scene with the bathtub had the woman next to me sniffling into a Kleenex.)

But almost everything in it happens with no apparent concern for narrative or pacing. Designed to introduce the characters, the first three songs instead cause whiplash. First there's a comic account of how aging playgirl Etta Mae's wild life contrasts with the life of workaholic narrator Mattie; then, to introduce Luciella, a young mother in a bad relationship, we get a mopey ballad set in a grocery store, which kills the momentum. That's followed by a blaxploitation funk-empowerment stomper and a lengthy chat (between fight-the-power twentysomething Kiswana and her middle-class mother) about the bourgeoisie, the weight of names, racism down South and all sorts of other topics that are fascinating but could, because this is a musical, be so much better addressed through music. We get too much of the story in pedantic dialogue between songs instead of in the songs themselves.

After that, the show revisits the characters we've already met, but then others pop up, acting like we should know who they are. Narrator Mattie (Davita J. Wesley Vaughn) labors mightily to hold the story together. She occasionally promises that it will end with a bake sale and block party, which is surprisingly low stakes for a show that tosses out so much life and death. Forever having to say things like so-and-so's death really brought us together, Vaughn still manages something like a command performance, almost single-handledly muscling half-related moments into a narrative. She's a calm presence most of the time, and so charismatic that whatever emotion she projects quickly fills the room. With a couple of sighs and some rueful lines, she miraculously moves the crowd from disco Shakespeare to that Purple Rain funeral. It's an achievement — and a burden that no one actor should have to carry. Then, as if her stoic, plainspoken narrator role wasn't impressive enough, she occasionally lets loose with a gospel wail that'll clear your sinuses. A performer with this restraint is rare. (Lord knows if I could belt like that I would never shut up.)

Nedra Dixon struts and squawks amusingly as Etta Mae. A long showcase number involving her ill-fated date with a preacher has more story than the show as a whole, and Dixon handles funny stuff and wrenching realizations with equal skill. I also admired Lori Wellman in the too-broad comic-villainess role and Nicole S. Williamson as beleaguered mother Cora Lee. An exciting singer, and enough of an actress to dig true pathos from her short scenes, Williamson shines throughout but is especially potent when she's performing, with a flutter of embarrassment, for unruly kids during a clever aside in the Midsummer Night's Dream production.

Other performances range from the unremarkable to the amateurish. Director Jacqueline Gafford is good at solemn moments and carefree talk, but under her guidance the dramatic highpoints — a gang attack, a lover's spat — ring false, with bad timing and actresses tearing themselves raw to little effect. Gary Mosby's set is a brick-and-graffiti beauty, the kind of realist cityscape that the Rep raises for August Wilson plays. The band, led by Anthony Edwards, is asked to groove, but they still sound like musical theater to me.

The ending is a gospel extravaganza of passion and ambition. These are Acito's strengths, and that great Midsummer Night's Dream number showcases another — the one that might get this colt up and running by the time it hits the next city. The best songs here don't just have surprises but also miniature act structures: sudden drama, shifts of genre, a sure-footed storytelling sense that's currently absent in the book. Their power lifts this work in progress from curio to an engaging night of theater.

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