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A CurtainUp DC Review
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.