It’s been said that a Tyler Perry production, without Tyler Perry, is a wasteland full of high octane vocals, soulful gospel renditions, zinger lines, and a wise-cracking fool or two, but a theatrical nonevent. That prediction is unfortunately true for Laugh to Keep from Crying now playing through Sunday at the Warner Theatre.
What is it about that pistol toting, gun slinging, potty-mouthed, gargantuan bosomed, giant double pumpkin hipped family matron with her deadpan delivery that just lights up a room and tears down a house? Whatever she’s got, when she’s not around, it shows, and while the show goes on, it’s not as mesmerizingly entertaining. Crying provides even less theatrical material than usual and seems like it was written by a high school gospel writing troupe, maybe even gifted middle schoolers.
Mama Carol Wright, or maybe it’s spelled Right, since she walks the straight and narrow path of single motherhood (yes, the messages are that blatant), tries to do right by her Sunday school attending, bible reading teenage son, Tony, and her mouthy, one foot in the streets daughter, Lisa. They live across the hall from one hardworking neighbor, and directly under Niecey, who offers comic relief as a bonafide well endowed and amply stocked woman of the night.
In true neighborhood fashion, the families all know each other, visit up and down the stairwells and chat periodically in the guise of offering companionship and support – when it’s obviously a set-up to accompany each other on the next song. The clownish landlord Floyd provides the most comic relief despite being obnoxious, but the story lags when he’s not around. There’s even a newly wed white couple who moved into an efficiency to save money and satisfy the obligatory “what you doing here?” routine, learning to swagger to fit in and fend off the Hannah Montana and Justin Timberlake jokes. They’re cute and can sing up a storm, but the script is insufferable when Anna gets her feelings hurt trying to cook chittlins.
Don’t get me started about when her white-bread, tippy-toe, straight-laced momma visits that part of town for the first time. Oh no, they didn’t just say Barry Farms?! It’s enough to make me want to take off my earrings and, well, you know how that part of the stereotype goes, too.
In short, Lisa wants to find her father and takes on the bad-girl role to get back at her mother for withholding information about him. When she goes a step too far and gets thrown out on her keister, she scoots up to Niecy’s to learn how she makes money for such nice things. Okay, we all know how that turns out, and the script doesn’t add a wit of discovery, ingenuity, or creativity, nothing but silliness and predictability.
With such artificially contrived plot lines, character sketches and skimpy direction, the show would be a total waste were it not for the notoriously good singers who wail up a storm at the least provocation. Characters will find any conceivable opportunity to belt out an ear splitting number to shake the rafters and provoke you to get your shout on. But even the good gospel got to feeling fake when Niecey started jiggling and strutting her street walking stuff to one of the old favorites. The writers and directors refused to leave well enough alone and let the songs work their magic and instead interjected hee-haw style assault to snatch away the joy.
Laugh to Keep From Crying features Palmer Williams, Jr. (Floyd from Perry’s “House of Payne”) veteran gospel singer, Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley as Carol, and a powerhouse band. [no detailed program was provided to this reviewer.] The show started its national tour just weeks after Perry’s latest movie, “I Can Do Bad All By Myself” hit the big screen. Perry has found a winning formula and continues to churn out the hits, where even the misses will pack a house. And that ain’t bad, at least for Perry.
Running Time: 2 hours w/ one intermission
Laugh to Keep from Crying
A Tyler Perry Production
Touring at the Warner Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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