‘Cabin in the Sky’ review: An admirable resuscitation

The 1940 folk musical “Cabin in the Sky,” which was noteworthy in its day for having an all-black cast, fable-style plot, jazz- and spiritual-infused score by Vernon Duke and John Latouche and staging by ballet choreographer George Balanchine, somehow never earned a place in the musical theater repertory, probably due to its unique nature.

It has also been obscured in memory by the far better-known 1943 film version, which followed the original storyline but chucked out much of the score (though it retained the title song and the standard “Taking a Chance on Love”).

City Center’s staging of the musical, which kicks off the new Encores! season, isn’t so much a revival as it is a full-scale resuscitation, with new orchestrations and the addition of the song “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” from the movie. Some language from the original script that may seem objectionable (or at least questionable) today has been excised.

A combination of romance, marital drama and religious trial, the good-natured simple-minded Joe (Michael Potts) becomes the subject of a contest between an angel (Norm Lewis) and an agent of the devil (Chuck Cooper) as to whether he will be swayed from the righteous path, despite the intervention of his loving wife Petunia (LaChanze).

With focused direction from Ruben Santiago-Hudson, elaborate dance choreography by Camille A. Brown and the characteristically excellent music direction of Rob Berman (who conducts a full orchestra), it is an admirable production of a dated, diffuse and difficult work.

Potts, Cooper and Lewis are all fine, but the show truly belongs to LaChanze and her heartfelt, assured, altogether beaming performance (in a role made famous by Ethel Waters).

If you go:

“Cabin in the Sky” plays through Sunday at City Center. West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, nycitycenter.org.