Sometimes it takes an outsider's perspective to make you appreciate what you've got. When Queen Esther Marrow and the Harlem Gospel Singers trucked their gospel revival Higher and Higher through Europe, they found that the language barrier hardly mattered where the music was concerned. "People were on their feet, like a rock concert," said Marrow in a recent phone interview from New York. "The Europeans like gospel, especially the old gospel music. They seem to cherish old things -- we're quicker to throw things away."
If America appreciates gospel music's generally joyful spirit, it might prefer to dispense with the sorrowful history that engendered its rise. Higher and Higher lacks a concrete narrative, but like Savion Glover's tap-dance musical Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, it traces the black American experience from slavery to the present through the folk culture and religious faith that sustained its practitioners. As Marrow explains, each of the 20-plus songs tells a piece of the story "of how we went higher and higher knowing God." Marrow, a gospel diva who played Mahalia Jackson in the Broadway musical Truly Blessed, revisits Jackson with the signature song "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," which Patsy Cline popularized among white audiences. Backed by a six-piece band, Marrow and the 13-member choir (which is composed of up-and-coming gospel talent) run through traditional gospel's vibrant catalog, as well as modern adaptations, and jazz and soul songs even lapsed churchgoers will recognize: the classic "A Change Is Gonna Come" and "When We Were Kings" (as featured in the Muhammad Ali documentary of the same name), Frank Loesser's "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat," Earth, Wind & Fire's "We Can Touch the World," and Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher." The show previews at 8 p.m. Thursday (and runs through Oct. 3) at Theater on the Square, 450 Post (at Mason), S.F. Admission is $30-40; call 433-9500. (