Train Is Comin', Chicago Theatre Company. Somewhere in McKinley Johnson's slow-moving a cappella gospel musical there's an exciting, inspirational show. Jam-packed with familiar, beautifully moving traditional songs like "These Are My Father's Children," "Get On Board," and "No More Auction Block," Train Is Comin' tells the fascinating but little-known story of a group of Fisk University gospel singers who traveled the world raising money to save their school from bankruptcy in the late 1800s.
With a stellar cast of ten exquisitely voiced actors, deftly costumed in period dress by Michael Alan Stein, Chicago Theatre Company's world premiere is layered with the kind of wit and deep emotion all too rare on Chicago stages. But three hours is a long haul for rather sketchily drawn characters and a play with only the skeleton of a plot. The script has a chronological structure, following the Fisk Jubilee Singers from their formation to their triumphant concert before President Ulysses S. Grant and their widely acclaimed European tour, but not a dramatic one. Neither musical revue nor traditional musical, Train Is Comin' veers uneasily between stunning musical numbers, informational speeches, and vignettes about the relationships between the singers. These scenes are intelligently performed but choppily arranged, so one waits impatiently for the songs, many of which are too short to be as affecting as they could be.
Delia Jolly Gray directs the material reverentially, and she has a great eye for evocative stage pictures; but she doesn't give the show the pace it needs and it drags. Certainly Train Is Comin' is enjoyable and educational, but it's still a rewrite or two away from something really special. --Adam Langer