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Review: “Ethel” deftly captures the brilliance and the pain of legendary singer Ethel Waters

Terry Burrell wrote  and stars in Ethel. (Photo by Greg Mooney)
Terry Burrell wrote and stars in Ethel. (Photo by Greg Mooney)

Ethel Waters may have been one of the most popular blues singers and top-selling recording artists of her day, but at the opening of the tremendously appealing new one-woman show Ethel, created and performed by Atlanta actress Terry Burrell, we find her at a time when things aren’t going especially well. The show, which runs at the Alliance’s Hertz Stage, has recently been extended through April 24.

When the lights go up, Waters is old and broke, moving into the run-down Harlem apartment of a kind relative as a last resort, facing punitive bills for back taxes, and dealing with the difficult fact that late in her life she’s been more or less brushed aside by a culture that has quickly moved on to other things. But in Burrell’s performance, Waters remains a defiantly undaunted, funny, lively, and intimate storyteller as she narrates the story of her life. It’s a fascinating story that, as we learn, has had plenty of triumph, glamour and success, but also more than its share of poverty, hardship, humiliation, discrimination, sexism and abuse.

Ethel works at its best when Burrell is telling stories, vividly bringing to life particular incidents and experiences. The show’s most exciting segment is one in which she narrates Waters’ narrow escape from a racist incident in Macon when the star complained to a white club owner that his piano was out of tune, and white town officials who couldn’t abide the defiant talk from an African-American woman sought violent retribution.

If there’s fault to be found in the show, it’s that Burrell has a pleasant and capable voice, but it’s not a heart-stoppingly extraordinary one. On opening night, a few songs in Act I — including the crucial “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” a gospel song closely associated with Waters — faltered. While Waters’ story is energetically and engagingly told, she only comes partially alive when the songs are merely adequate.

Waters’ story isn’t just the story of a woman who found success after facing hardship; it’s the story of a woman who was in possession of an expressive voice that transformed her circumstances. Still, more of the Act II songs come alive than those in Act I, and it doesn’t hurt that Burrell’s back-up musicians, Scott Glazer and Tyrone Jackson, are excellent, and the arrangement — upright bass and piano — is a knock-out fit for the basement space of the Alliance.

Set designer Kristen Robinson’s small raised stage suggests the run-down Harlem apartment where Waters is living late in life, and a smaller, lower platform with old-fashioned floor lights suggests the grandeur of some of the stages where she performs at her most popular; both are intimate and effectively used throughout the show.

In the end, some viewers will find it no small fault that songs in the show occasionally fall short, but everyone, I think, will succumb to the appeal of Burrell’s reverent depiction of the practical, complicated and wise wit behind one of the 20th century’s great singers.

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