“There’s nothing wrong,” Elmer Gantry (Charlie Pollock) tells a musician (Nick Lehan) in the latest version of this oft-sung tale, “with a few hot licks on behalf of Jesus Christ.”
For much of the first Act, this phrase – A Few Hot Licks on Behalf of Jesus Christ – could serve as an alternate title for the revised Elmer Gantry, now opening at Signature. In truth, the first Act seems little more than a standard musical about how a cute bad boy put the zing into a failing musical act while courting and winning the female lead. That God is the subject of the troupe’s efforts is little more than an afterthought; this could be Mickey Rooney enticing Judy Garland, or Professor Harold Hill selling trombones.
Oh, it passes pleasantly enough. Gantry, a failed salesman of farm implements about to board a train in the depression-era Midwest, stumbles across an evangelical troupe fronted, and led, by Sister Sharon Falconer (Mary Kate Morrissey). Gantry’s hormones awake and sing, and he calls upon his background in the clergy (he once was a pastor, until being caught in flagrante delicto with a member of the choir) to ingratiate himself with the evangelicals, and to worm his way into Sister Sharon’s heart.
And, to give the rascal his credit, Elmer Gantry seems to have a way with a hymn, particularly after he integrates the troupe with the Washington family (Ashley Buser, Daphne Epps, and the fabulous Nova Y. Payton). Listening to the jazzy hymns after Elmer gets his mitts on them is really the high point of the Act one – particularly the marvelous closing number “No Greater Love.”
As for the rest of the first Act – eh. Mel Marvin and Bob Satuloff’s non-gospel songs tend to the stale and the static in that Act. Reverend Elmer and Sister Sharon are given solos in which they meditate on their emotions – emotions which have already been made clear to the audience by the text. The book, by the late John Bishop and supplemented with material provided by his widow, Lisa, moves along at the stately pace of an Archbishop giving a blessing. Aside from a brief dalliance between Gantry and a choir member (Jessica Lauren Ball) while he is waiting for Sister Sharon to make up her mind, there is no real conflict in the first Act.
But in the second Act, wonderfully, a story breaks out. It is not exactly the best-selling story Sinclair Lewis wrote, but it’s a good story nonetheless. Gantry and Sister Sharon have landed in the great metropolis Zenith, where the principal bigwig (Lawrence Redmond) has designs on Sister Sharon – and designs for a church of her own, near the river right outside the City. Gantry investigates and finds a worm’s nest of intrigue behind the seeming civic gesture, and, in fighting for the soul of Sister Sharon, improbably discovers his own. It’s a cracking good tale, and inspires the musical’s best songs – especially “Should’a Known Betta Blues”, which Elmer sings with the Washingtons, and the beautiful “Dedication,” which follows.
The rap against the earlier version of the show, which debuted at Ford’s Theatre nearly twenty years ago, was that the Elmer Gantry character was not sufficiently charismatic to hold the story together. That’s not a problem here, as Pollock – who has served as a worship minister in his real life – delivers charisma and cynicism in equal parts. He knows the cadence; he knows when to push and when to back off; and he knows when to go in for the kill. In his preaching, Gantry is an actor; so Pollock is an actor playing an actor, and he does so convincingly. Even at his most cynical, he permits us to see the possibility of his redemption, and so when he chooses nobility in the second Act it is natural and fits in with the story arc. He sings powerfully, although the songs he is given by and large do not permit him to demonstrate much range.
But it is Morrissey as Sister Sharon who propels the way forward. She and director Eric Schaeffer take an enormous risk with her character at the outset. She seems cold, distracted and indifferent for much of the first Act; she plasters a megawatt smile on her face when she faces the congregation under her tent, but her eyes seem blank, as though she is mentally counting the house, or calculating her own net worth. She sings up a storm (Morrissey has a beautiful voice) but it sounds a little mechanical. She seems odd somehow, and bored; and her sudden, fierce carnality once Elmer’s schemes start bringing in the donations is shocking.
But it is all part of a gradual revelation of Sister Sharon’s character, which reaches full flower when she is offered her Church in the second Act. Once that happens she comes to herself, and Morrissey snaps into a character who is almost preternaturally alive and alert, animated by a near- thermonuclear passion. It is an astonishing character arc, and Morrissey realizes it fully. Lewis patterned Sister Sharon on Aimee Semple McPherson, and Schaeffer may have accomplished in this character what he may not have fully accomplished in his previous direction of Saving Aimee, Kathie Lee Gifford’s play about McPherson. Between Elmer Gantry and Sister Sharon, it is she who is the more interesting. Gantry rises above his own cynicism to find moral value, but Sharon’s outsized ambition blossoms into something near madness.
There is a boatload of talent – Harry Winter, Bobby Smith, Paul Scanlon, Stephen Gregory Smith, Bayla Whitten, Matt Conner – in the cast, but in fact this is really a two-character play, with the other characters principally as plot devices. This doesn’t in any way diminish the work the other actors do. Everyone is in character every moment of the play; everywhere you look it appears that someone is helping the story move along. Redmond at this point may have a patent on the character he plays here: the jolly civic leader with a metaphorical blackjack in his pocket. Bobby Smith plays Gantry’s congenial buddy Frank Shallard, worldly-wise, certainly, but with emphasis on the wise.
Closes November 9, 2014
4200 Campbell Avenue
2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets $29 — $80
Tuesdays through Sundays
Info and Tickets
In addition to Payton, who I mentioned earlier, there are two standouts in this fine cast: Jessica Lauren Ball, who plays a naïve country girl in the chorus, and Russell Sunday in several roles. Ball’s character, who satisfies Elmer’s lust in the mistaken belief that he has feelings for her, would be played for laughs by a less careful actor in a less careful production. Ball makes her a warm and openhearted human being, whose passion for Elmer is an extension of the joy she takes in her life and her religion, thus making her disappointment at the end all the more heartbreaking. In the scene in which she finally realizes where Elmer’s attentions truly lie – while she is singing in the chorus – is perfect.
Sunday has long been known as an outstanding voice but was not, in my view, a great actor. But here he is fabulous in everything he does, whether he is a bellicose salesman, or one of the bigwig’s thugs, or – and this is his best scene – the bereft father of a wheelchair-bound boy (Ian Berlin). Seeing Sunday weep, you may feel impelled to run up and put your arms around him. Please do not do that.
Religion teaches us patience, whether in waiting for the Redeemer or for personal salvation. Bring some of that virtue to Elmer Gantry, which I recommend you see. The first Act is easy to take, if a little light; and the second Act packs a real wallop, which will make it worth your time.
Elmer Gantry, based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis . Book by John Bishop with supplemental book material by Lisa Bishop . Music by Mel Marvin and lyrics by Bob Satuloff . Orchestrations: Bruce Coughlin and vocal arrangements by Ted Sperling . Directed by Eric Schaeffer (assisted by Walter Ware III) . Featuring Jessica Lauren Ball, Ian Berlin, Sean Burns, Ashley Buster, Matt Conner, William Diggle, Jamie Eacker, Maria Egler, Daphne Epps, Nick Lehan, Mary Kate Morrissey, Nova Y. Payton, Charlie Pollock, Lawrence Redmond, Paul Scanlan, Bobby Smith, Stephen Gregory Smith, Russell Sunday, Bayla Whitten and Harry A. Winter.
Musical direction by Vadim Feichtner . Choreography: Karma Camp . Scenic design: Dan Conway . Costume design: Frank Labovitz . Lighting design: Chris Lee . Sound design: Lane Elms . Wig design: Anne Nesmith. The orchestra was composed of William Yanesh (conductor), Leee Lachman, Ed Walters, Brent Madsen, Amy Smith, Michael Maher, Jim Roberts, Bill Hones, Paul Keesling and Sarah Forad. Stage manager: Kerry Epstein, assisted by Allie Roy . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
Closes Nov. 9
Chris Klimek . City Paper Pollock’s slinky athleticism and his seductive way of down-tuning the last word of a line make it feel like Matthew McConaughey’s part.
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld just plain heavenly
Missy Frederick . Washingtonian Signature Theatre is doing everything it can to make Elmer Gantry sing; there just probably should be a little less singing.
Iain Armitage (video review) Miss Nova, to hear her sing, is like a wonderland for your ears.
Keith Loria . Theatermania Pollock shines in the title role of the Depression-era evangelist who has trouble balancing religion and sopranos.
Peter Marks . Washington Post a smooth and confident ride, especially when it’s cruising along on the Bible-thumping vocal power of a cast 20 strong.
Brian Bochicchio . MDTheatreGuide sprinkled with faith, ambition, and unbridled passion
Bessel and Brasswell . DCMetroTheaterArts the musical numbers are the highlight of the show