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Boston singer enchanting in festival's feature show

Unlikely locations have often served as the homes of emerging artists, and in the next few days you can see a startlingly talented young Boston singer shine in the musical "Mama I Want to Sing." The Our Place Theatre Project has transformed an unassuming, multipurpose space adjacent to the Egleston Square YMCA building into a new performance home. And with "Mama I Want to Sing" as the anchor show in this year's annual African American Theatre Festival, it's quite clear that the new digs are working out well.

Sabreen Staples performs at the center of this "story in concert" about Doris Winter, a young Harlem woman who leaves her church choir -- and her home -- to pursue her dream of being a professional singer. Based on the life of artist Doris Troy, the show links nearly 20 musical numbers to chronicle her journey -- from her relationship with her father (who was the minister at her church) to the beginnings of her touring career, all the way through to her establishment as an international pop star (most famous for the song "Just One Look"). Staples is enchanting in the lead role. She transforms, vocally and physically, as the character of Doris matures. It is clear that music is more than expression for Staples; it is inspiration.

"Mama I Want to Sing" is structured as a retrospective radio show, with smooth-talking DJ Candace Lee hovering above the action in her recording booth, introducing vignettes from Doris's life in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. The design elements are modest yet serviceable, operating simply as indicators of time and place. The singing is what's on display here, and, in the tradition of gospel music, vibrant spontaneity and improvisation are key. The ensemble is filled with notable vocal performers, among them Denise Young as Sister Carrie, the established choir soloist with the powerful, steely voice. Also impressive is Linda Starks as Mama.

There are some rough edgesto this production. Occasionally anachronistic choreography surfaces, and there is a disappointing lull in energy at the start of Act 2. The ensemble, however, does rebound by the show's end, capably powered by Staples at its center.

("Mama I Want to Sing"; Musical in two acts; At Egleston Square Youth Center/YMCA, 3134 Washington St., through Sunday; 617-442-4425.)

Sabreen Staples
"Mama I Want to Sing," featuring Sabreen Staples (above), is at Egleston Square Youth Center/YMCA through Sunday. For more information call 617-442-4425.
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