Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 29, 2021

Review: Goodspeed Opera House, Ambassador of Love, Celebrating Pearl Bailey

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, CT 
through July 18
by Stuart W. Gamble

Last August in the middle of the Covid-19 Pandemic, this author attended (fully masked) the
first Equity-approved professional production of Godspell with the Berkshire Theater Group in Pittsfield, MA. The message of that musical favorite was one of Hope for all of us, as we faced the unknown. This past week, the author attended (maskless) Ambassador of Love, a new production of the life of Pearl Bailey. Like the legendary Pearly Mae herself, the show’s message is that of love and humor, and the joy of live performance.

This summer opener offers first-class production values. Star Rashida Scott appeared on Broadway in Company, Ain’t too Proud, and Sister Act. Musical Director Michael O. Mitchell’s credits include Motown the Musical, The Color Purple, and Memphis. The show’s Director T. Oliver Reid has won more than 20 Tony Awards for Hadestown, Once on This Island, and Sunset Boulevard. With such a pedigreed production, it was a bit disappointing that the show ran for only approximately one hour.

But in that time, there is a lot to behold and embrace. Simply staged, the performance space consists of only a keyboard while the rest of the space is reserved for Ms. Scott’s magnificent singing and dancing. Scott sings an incredible 22 songs during the show, composed by some of the fines, including Fats Waller (“There’s a Man in My Life”), W.C. Handy (“St. Louis Blues”), Harold Arlen (“Don’t Like Goodbyes”), and George Gershwin (“That Certain Feeling”). A particular highlight was a soulful version of “Before the Parade Passes By” from “Hello, Dolly!” composed by the recently deceased Jerry Herman.

Not only is “Ambassador of Love” (a nod to Bailey’s Presidential appointment as special ambassador to the U.N.) a treat for the ear, but it is also a bauble for the eyes. Scott’s simple, yet striking, white and peach jumpsuit is complimented by the sparkling diamond necklace, ring, and bracelet that adorn her. Her warmth, vivacity, humor, and direct interaction with the audience indeed conjures up the spirit of Ms. Bailey. Since June is Black Music month, it is quite fitting that Pearl Bailey’s contributions to mid-20th Century music be given their due.

Dramatically, the show is a bit weak. Ms. Scott does not “play” Pearl Bailey but narrates her story in the third person. She tells us about Bailey’s accomplishments: four Broadway shows (including the first all-black production of “Hello, Dolly!”), a special Tony Award for “Dolly”, the New York Bronze Medal Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She also notes Ms. Bailey’s friendships with Perle Mesta and Joan Crawford. But despite all this triumph, the ugly face of racism was ever-present, including an incident in which Ms. Bailey was “jumped” simply for being black. With more dramatic build-up and structure, “Ambassador of Love” will surely become a Broadway-bound hit.