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Lyric brims with hats and gospel songs

That joyful noise you hear pouring out of the YWCA building on Clarendon Street is not a church service with gospel music. It's the Boston premiere of Regina Taylor's ''Crowns," which plugs into that same communal sense of exaltation in a likable Lyric Stage Company production.

But ''Crowns" is a play, not a musical. Taylor, best known as a star of the television series ''I'll Fly Away," is also an accomplished playwright, and she puts her dramatic skills to use in adapting Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's book about Southern women and their hats into a piece of feel-good theater.

The wearing of hats might not seem like the most promising framing device, but here the head adornments are a means of exploring differences between Southern and Northern black women, religion and secularism, community and isolation, exaltation and despair.

I'm usually mistrustful of easy dichotomies that suggest organized religion is the only place to find a real sense of community and spirituality -- and particularly so at a time when religious zealotry seems to be the source of so much turmoil around the world. It's a credit to ''Crowns," both the play and the production, that it breaks down those reservations. The beautiful baby shouldn't be thrown out with the ugly bathwater.

The central character is Yolanda, a street-smart girl from Brooklyn, N.Y., who's sent down South to live with her grandmother after the girl's brother is shot to death by a friend. Mother Shaw has her own kind of posse, a group of women who gather to share in one another's joys and sorrows -- which doesn't stop them from teasing and trumping one another, particularly on the subject of hats.

It also doesn't stop them from breaking into song at the drop of a . . . you know what. Director Lois Roach and the Lyric have assembled a great cast of local singer-actors. Jacqui Parker's singing is a lovely extension of her graceful acting, here as the wise and wise-cracking Wanda. The rip-the-roof-off vocals belong to Merle Perkins as Velma, the one with the wild-woman past whose voice goes from one impossibly high plateau to another in ''His Eye Is on the Sparrow," and to Darius Omar Williams, who goes deep as well as high in a succession of male roles. Fulani Haynes, Michelle Dowd, and Mikelyn Roderick provide pretty harmonies throughout.

The young Heather Fry, though loaded with potential, doesn't quite keep up with the older generation; her transformation from someone straight outta Brooklyn to a voyager into the mystic doesn't really ring true.

That isn't necessarily her fault, as Taylor's attentions are focused more on the poetry of the women's hats. They are at once head coverings for greeting their Lord and for more secular purposes (''A woman can really flirt wearing a hat"), individual fashion statements, and paths to greater self-esteem. Ultimately, they are crowns, expressions of ''hattitude" with a heavenly aura.

But some of the women's stories about their hats fall flat, leaving too many sluggish spots in the play. I had also hoped that the Lyric's intimacy would serve the play better than Hartford Stage's larger space did with another production a year ago, but that isn't the case. Brynna C. Bloomfield's set and Eleanor Moore's light design are much too spare, though perhaps such spareness was Roach's way of shining more of a spotlight on Susie Smith's elegant hatwear.

In any event, reservations disappear when the cast breaks into song, which it does frequently, with subtle accompaniment from pianist Evelyn Lee-Jones and percussionist Anthony Steele.

Yolanda comes to discover that it's important to know one's roots. When the soundtrack to that discovery is this gorgeous, we might as well stop carping and just doff our hats.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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