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A CurtainUp DC Review
Elmer Gantry

Buddy, I love this country. I love the honest to-God, next-to-the-dirt folks who live in it. What I don't love are the cream-skimmers who run it. Those salesmen over at Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue who sell a bill of goods to the entire population regarding equal opportunity.— Elmer Gantry
Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) and Mary Kate Morrissey(Sharon Falconer) (Photo: Christopher Mueller)
' Elmer Gantry's back in town as a musical now playing at Signature Theatre under Eric Schaeffer’s insightful direction. Elmer’s a salesman, a boozer and a womanizer who finds his calling as a preacher, selling innocent believers that he can save their souls while contributing to the offering bowls. He meets his match in the equally driven Sharon Falconer, a character based on Aimee Semple McPherson who also found a way to make a living extolling the virtues of life available to all if they embrace Jesus. Their dubious ethics, ambitions and lack of scruples complement one another.

After a very loud and cacophonous opening by the 10-piece orchestra led by Vadim Feichtner, Elmer Gantry, played with a bit too much softness and not enough sleaze by Charlie Pollock, makes his presence known. The minute Pollock begins to sing his opening number "Between Trains," a travelling salesman's lament, his magnificent voice mesmerizes. He is well-matched vocally by Mary Kate Morrissey as Sharon Falconer. She too has a gorgeous voice. It is sad, however, to note that all performers in Signature's small theater were wearing mikes.

Where this version of Lewis's book (which was also a movie, a play, and a previous musical) differs is with the re-worked music and lyrics. Mel Marvin's music combines country, blues and gospel admirably. Bob Satuloff's less consistent lyrics are sometimes moving, sometimes trite. And the book by the late John Bishop with additional material by his widow Lisa Bishop is weak in parts. Incongruous too is when the uneducated Elmer quotes Shakespeare for instance.

Some numbers, particularly Elmer and Sharon's sweet ballad "With You," "Dedication" and the "Should'a Known Betta Blues," are standouts. "With This Ring" sung by Sharon seems a bit hokey as does the plot point which it is supposed to make. The most satirical number in the show, "Carry that Ball,"combines gospel singing with football metaphors and moves and is very amusing.

Choreographer Karma Camp has the ensemble slightly exaggerate to fine effect the kind of moves one might witness at a gospel ceremony or revival meeting. Dan Conway's set, Frank Labovitzs costumes and Chris Lee's lighting all add to the ambiance. Special kudos to those responsible for the special effects.

Flawless casting of the entire ensemble is a rare treat. But that is what this production has going for it. Not a false note, not a false move. The book however is a disappointment. After a rollicking first act where the staid audience almost (you sensed the wanted to) get on their feet and clap to the rhythms of the music.

The second act lacks the verve of the first. The exposition gets a bit muddled, particularly in the telling of Sharon's shady past and the business of the ring she tries to give Elmer. He has fallen deeply in love with her but she is focused on career and fame.

Elmer's transformation from tough guy on the make to smitten and scorned suitor lacks some credibility. Another questionable moment is when there is no reaction by the all-white choir to being introduced to three African American singers, friends of Elmer's, who join Sharon and Elmer on their journey. Those three singing sisters — Daphne Epps as Grace Washington, Ashley Buster as Epatha Washington and particularly Nova Y. Payton, a force of nature whose remarkable voice could raise any roof — perk up every scene they are in. As the pretty, naïve choirgirl Paula, Jessica Lauren Ball, sings very sweetly. Her character is an obvious foil to Sharon's lack of innocence.

If Elmer Gantry's second act had the verve and spirit and momentum of the first, the show would make believers of us all.

Elmer Gantry
Book by John Bishop with additional material by Lisa Bishop
Music by Mel Marvin
Lyrics by Bob Satuloff
Based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Choreography by Karma Camp
Scenic Design by Dan Conway
Costume Design by Frank Labovitz
Lighting Design by Chris Lee
Sound Design by Lane Elms
Music Direction by Vadim Feichtner
Cast: Harry A. Winter (Stationmaster, Henry, Bob Faucher); Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry); Russell Sunday (Shartel, Father, Forrest, Mike Carrigan); Stephen Gregory Smith (Dave, Frankie, Emmitt Timmons; Dance Captain); Paul Scanlan (Paul, Ray, Ross Kohler); Sean Burns (Will, Mike; Bellboy); Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer); Nick Lehan (Tom); Bayla Whitten (Shirley); Matt Conner (Art); William Diggle (Martin); Jessica Lauren Ball (Paula); Maria Egler (Maude); Jamie Eacker (Bernice, Mother); Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington); Ashley Buster (Epatha Washington); Daphne Epps (Grace Washington); Bobby Smith (Frank Shallard) ; Lawrence Redmond (Merle Blanchard); Ian Berlin (Young Man).
> Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson, October 16, 2014.
Signature, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. (703-820-9771)
October 7 to November 9, 2014
; tickets ($29 to $96.25, includes convenience fee);

Musical Numbers Act One: Between Trains, Shine, Between Trains (Reprise), Walk With the Prophets, You Don't Know Who I Am, On the Road, Night Heat, Carry That Ball, No Greater Love.
Musical Numbers Act Two: He's Coming Back, With You, Crown Him With Glory, Shoulda Known Betta Blues, Dedication, My American Dream, With This Ring, Finale.
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