The gospel voices: WOW. The musicians: WOW. And the hats: WOW.

McCarter Theatre Center's lively production of Regina Taylor's Crowns (through April 1) is a heartwarming, foot-tapping show adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.

The show's title comes from the lyrics of a traditional gospel song, "When I get to heaven / Gonna put on my crown /  I'm gonna walk all over God's heaven." That crown became the rich and literally spectacular tradition of the hats African American women wear to church; a "hat queen" is someone who owns more than 100 hats. And outfits to match. Sunday was a chance, the one day in the week, to cast off the shabby work clothes or the uniforms and show off.

Crowns is a show about that Sunday tradition and about the sisterhood of hat-wearers, here represented by a charismatic and mighty-voiced cast: Shari Anderson, Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Danielle K. Thomas, and Stephanie Pope. Each actor builds a character through a sashaying walk or shoulder shimmy or a graceful twirl or a commanding presence.

The one man in the cast, Lawrence Clayton, is a thrill to listen to and a pleasure to watch as he shifts from evangelical preacher to boyfriend to husband, and, briefly, to rapper.

The plot revolves around Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), a teenager sent from the mean streets of Chicago to live with her grandmother in South Carolina. Her brother has been shot, and she is in despair and obviously headed for serious trouble with a dangerous boyfriend. She resists the Southern tradition, but is, finally, as we knew she would be, redeemed.

Combined with the gospel singing are the African rhythms supplied by two terrific musicians on stage, Jaret Landon and David Pleasant, and they inspire some high-spirited and high-energy dancing with choreography by Dianne McIntyre. Although the set, designed by Caite Hevner, inclines to the overdone — big, cheesy projections and garish colors — the costumes and hats, designed by Emilio Sosa, are gorgeous.

The contrast of styles — of music (apostolic gospel versus hip-hop) and of clothes (opulent dresses and hats and high heels versus Yolanda's baseball cap, camouflage pants, and high-top sneakers), is ultimately a contrast of values. As Grandmother Shaw says, looking back, "It took the civil rights movement to get those hats off our heads."

But it turns out, judging by some of the sartorial splendor in the Sunday matinee audience, hats are definitely back.



    • Through April 1 at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton Tickets: $50-$81. Information: 609-258-2787,