Christin Byrdsong and Carrie Compere rock in ‘Shout Sister Shout!’ The high-energy musical about Sister Rosetta Tharpe plays at Seattle Repertory Theatre through Dec. 22.
Christin Byrdsong and Carrie Compere rock in ‘Shout Sister Shout!’ The high-energy musical about Sister Rosetta Tharpe plays at Seattle Repertory Theatre through Dec. 22.

“Shout Sister Shout!” runs through Dec. 22 at Seattle Rep. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling the box office at 206-443-2222 .

Long before Elvis strummed his guitar, unleashed his infamous hips, and became a rock ‘n’ roll sensation, the iconic Sister Rosetta Tharpe dazzled audiences with her powerhouse vocals and virtuoso guitar style.

Sister Rosetta pushed boundaries. Bold and charismatic, she overflowed with attitude and showmanship. As one critic expressed: “She was playing rock licks more than a decade before the first rock record was released.”

Never heard of her? It’s your loss. But you’re not alone.

Luckily, you can remedy that at Seattle Repertory Theatre, where “Shout, Sister, Shout!” is raising the rafters as a rollicking musical celebration of Tharpe’s life and career.

Inspired by Gayle F. Wald’s 2007 biography of Tharpe by the same name, director Randy Johnson and playwright Cheryl L. West teamed up to create “Shout, Sister, Shout!” as a musical production.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (March 20, 1915 – Oct. 9, 1973) was an American singer, songwriter, guitarist and recording artist. Like so many great black musicians, Tharpe honed her talents in church.

Born 1915 (she changed it to 1925) into an Arkansas family of cotton pickers, her father was a singer and her mother was an evangelist. Young Rosetta was a prodigy who started playing guitar at age 4, and was performing on the gospel circuit with her evangelist mother by 6. Rosetta left the church and headed to New York City when she turned 23.

By the 1930s and 1940s, she was ahead of her time. Dubbed “The Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll” by savvy insiders, Tharpe broke barriers. When her pop gospel, blending religious and secular music, upset the gospel community, Tharpe remained undaunted.

More concert than traditional musical, “Shout, Sister, Shout!” plays out over 2 1/2 hours. You’ll hear 20 Sister Rosetta hits, including, “Lonesome Road,” “Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “Precious Lord,” “Down By the Riverside,” the naughty “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa,” and “Walk All Over God’s Heaven.”

Decked out in Emilio Sosa’s period costumes, Carrie Compere’s tour-de-force turn as Tharpe overflows with joy and magnificence. Although she doesn’t play guitar, Compere mimes Tharpe’s moves with perfection, as her glorious voice soars through the theater with such power and magnificence; you’ll swear all of Seattle can hear.

Compere reigns, but she’s not alone on the Rep stage. She’s joined by a cast of multi-talented performers, who deliver terrific cameos as musical icons. Kudos to Tharpe’s backup Praise Brothers: Joseph Anthony Byrd, Chaz Rose, Timothy Ware, and Christin Byrdsong. Especially Joseph Anthony Byrd, whose vocal and physical antics at the top of the show almost steal the scene. Later on, Byrd delivers the jumpin’ jive of Cab Calloway, while Byrdsong tears up the stage with his sizzling bow as Little Richard.

Other fine cameos include Chaz Rose, showing off his chops as Dizzy Gillespie, and hoofers Byrdsong and Timothy Ware, cloning the moves of the Nicholas Brothers, one of the greatest dance duos ever.

Carol Dennis shines as Tharpe’s stomp-down Christian Mama, Katie, and captures the rich contralto of Mahalia Jackson. The brilliant vocals of Allison Semmes enhance her sensitive portrayal of R&B singer Marie Knight.

All this plays out on GW Skip Mercier’s set, which frames the stage with floor-to-ceiling square columns that, thanks to Robert Wierzel’s lighting, change colors to reflect the mood. A wide staircase leads up to the sliding-door backdrop, adorned with guitar images that also change colors.

West’s narrative includes Tharpe’s heartache, debilitating health, bisexuality and love life. She embellishes the script with down-home wit and sage wisdom, but her book needs polish in order to flow the vignettes effortlessly into the songs. No doubt the show will continue to evolve, especially if it has dreams of Broadway.

Tharpe’s rock ‘n’ roll royalty inspired countless rock icons. Chuck Berry said his entire career was “one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” Little Richard adored her, and the feeling was mutual. After she heard him sing, she invited him to join her on stage, his first public performance outside of church. And Johnny Cash’s induction speech at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame included an affectionate nod to Tharpe.

Tharpe’s career spanned four decades. Overlooked in rock ‘n’ roll history until recent years, it wasn’t until 80 years after her first hit record that Sister Rosetta Tharpe was finally inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

The shy little girl who had trouble “conversating” — as she put it — evolved into a fearless and flamboyant black artist who forged a new musical sound to become an international sensation. She blazed a trail into uncharted territory by using heavy distortion on her electric guitar, heralding the rise of electric blues.

Often compared to male guitarists of her day, she proclaimed: “Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.”

And she did.