At first glance, members of the East Piney Grove Baptist Church choir from Sanctified seem to be the ones in need of spiritual uplift. The youngest, a college-aged brother and sister, slouch in their chairs and pick fights with each other. One of the matrons disrupts the rehearsal with biting, yet hilarious complaints, and the choral director of the small, rural black church in South Carolina plays piano well enough but can’t read music. She also has a little drinking problem.
Sanctified is a lively, entertaining musical, kept afloat by the strength of playwright Javon Johnson’s well-crafted characters, a great cast of amazing singers, updated arrangements of traditional church songs, and some nicely done original tunes by composer Rollo A. Dilworth and musical director Raymond D. Reeder.
The tight five-piece pit band is led by Reeder, who also plays keyboards. During the first act, McClure as Pastor Jones sings a rousing call to action titled “Time for a Change,” written by Dillworth and arranged by Reeder. McClure’s exuberance is infectious, and he makes the audience root for him.
There’s nothing original about the story, however. Pastor Harold P. Jones (the charming John McClure, Jr.) is having a crisis. He’s likeable, young and ambitious, and he wants to build the membership and create a mega-church. Seeking change on several levels, he hopes the revival will jump-start the growth spurt.
Pastor Jones believes its time update the arrangements of the gospel songs, and he’s not sure his earnest yet somewhat insecure pianist (Jessica Frances Dukes) is up to the task. So he asks his classically trained musician cousin Pauletta (Mary Millben) to whip the choir into shape. Her operatic speech patterns, name dropping and pretentiousness (she insists that everyone call her Dr. Jones) cause more dissention within the group. And laughs. They don’t take her seriously.
In answer to Pastor Jones’ prayer, two delivery men (William T. Newman, Jr. and Joshua Nelson) are sent, possibly as angels, to provide support. It’s not really that clear, however, exactly how they’re guiding the pastor. They are, however, seen moving boxes around.
Bobby, the choir member who clearly cannot sing (the hilarious Ellis Foster), has a slight speech impediment. Yet he’s one of the more opinionated members, and Foster is a real crowd pleaser, keeping the laughs coming with his straightforward observations.
Towards the end of the first act, Sarah (the magnificent Bernadine Mitchell)—a soft-spoken yet strong woman who carries herself with a warm and dignified air, encourages the Pastor during his time of doubt with a song (“Blessed Assurance”) which becomes a duet. This was worth the wait. They sing beautifully together, and Mitchell (a two-time Helen Hayes Award winner for her starring roles in Blues in the Night, and Mahalia), is such a commanding, engaging presence, making you wish she had more time on the stage.
As Monique, the young girl who joyously finds her voice towards the end of the play, Ashley Jeudy was terrific—a breath of fresh air. Her commanding vocals in “Time for Revival”along with her stage presence further energized the audience.
As the Deacon who nearly stages a coup, the towering Frederick Strother (a two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee) , added depth to the production, exuding the power cultivated from years working in the Washington theatre arena. While Deacon often expressed some wariness about Pastor Jones, Strother played him as an elder statesman concerned about the direction the church was moving towards.
In the finale, Sarah and the chorus sang the tune “Sanctified,” and they brought the audience to their feet, clapping and singing along tune with a repetitive bridge that was easy to follow. For a few minutes, everyone was a member of the East Piney Grove Baptist church.
“Don’t make music to fill the seats. Make music to fill the soul,” Sarah says to Pastor Jones. The musician/actors of Sanctified, and their performances, were stirring, exciting, and at some points, soothing to the soul.
By Javon Johnson
Directed by Derrick Sanders
Composer Rollo A. Dilworth
Musical Director Raymond D. Reeder
Produced by Pro2Play Productions
Reviewed by Carol Chastang