The spirit moves shows with gospel numbers

Take it on faith that whenever a theater stages a musical of eclectic scores, it'll include at least one gospel number.

Holy-rollers turned up in Bat Boy and Carrie White at Dad's Garage Theatre, Violet at Actor's Express, Twelfth Night: The Musical at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, and pretty much any Southern musical involving Della or Dinettes.

Musical composers like the gospel idiom because its chord structures can be easily imitated, and a rousing choir-style number provides a quick pretext for audience participation with clapping hands and shouts of "amen." A good pastiche can make spectators nostalgic for that old-time religion -- even if their own church experience was never so theatrical.

Shows built around religious music can come closer to turning a play into a congregational experience. Two such shows play through June 15 at suburban playhouses, Theatre in the Square's Mahalia and Aurora Theatre's As It Is in Heaven. While they're both modestly appealing shows, the contrast between them truly fascinates, as each examines musical traditions that share Christian roots, yet they couldn't be more different.

Heaven depicts a Kentucky Shaker community in 1838, where the status quo of work and submission gets upset when young women claim to see angels. It builds to a rather dry, small-scale version of the conflict in The Crucible, made more compelling by its all-star cast of nine Atlanta actresses, including Barbara Cole, Agnes Lucinda Harty and Kathleen Wattis.

Heaven's dozen or so Shaker hymns work more like bridges between scenes instead of musical numbers. Songs like "Come Life Shaker Life" and "My Carnal Life I Will Lay Down" give the women brief moments of relief, in counterpoint to their severe lives. Even the music has strictures -- Shakers are forbidden to harmonize. ("If we're going to start singing in harmony, we might as well be Methodists!") At one point, two women sneak off and harmonize with the giddy guilt of sampling forbidden fruit.

The Shaker women would strongly disapprove of Mahalia Jackson's full-bodied gospel singing showcased in the sketchily detailed Mahalia. Where the Shaker hymns emphasize discipline and submission, Jackson's gospel spirituals burst with celebration and abundance, and find the ideal performer in Bernardine Mitchell.

Mahalia combines a revue of Jackson's hits with a thumbnail biography. Either playwright Tom Stolz soft-pedals some of Jackson's hardships, or the singer enjoyed the most blessed life imaginable. Apart from Jackson's impoverished upbringing and a section on the Civil Rights Movement, Mahalia plays for laughs surprisingly often.

Mitchell's commanding performance makes the play's biographical skimpiness irrelevant. Whether bouncing to the boogie-woogie tempo of "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" or intoning mournful songs such as "I've Been Buked," Mitchell conveys genuine exultation. Even atheists watching her performance will want to have what she's having.

A little gospel might provide a good balance to the current trend of dark, off-beat material in musical theater. You can't get more mainstream than the Atlanta Broadway Series, yet the upcoming season includes The Producers, The Full Monty and Urinetown, shows with song-and-dance numbers about Nazis, male strippers and, well, going to the bathroom. Reminding us of higher things now and then doesn't hurt.

Curtain up

Actor's Express' artistic director Jasson Minadakis is not playing it safe with his inaugural season. While predecessor Wier Harman programmed musicals and comedies by such familiar names as Stephen Sondheim and Joe Orton alongside edgy new work, Minadakis' six selections all prove either quite new or quite dark.

The season includes four Southeastern premieres, beginning Sept. 11 with Bel Canto, a combination of teenage coming-out story and homage to opera. Jim Knable's comedy Spain promises to echo Christopher Durang and David Lindsay-Abaire as a disenchanted housewife has a time-warped affair with a Spanish conquistador.

Atlanta actor Daniel May will play leading roles in two provocative works, Lanford Wilson's scorching romance Burn This and the English asylum drama Blue / Orange. And Minadakis continues the theater's emphasis on gay themes and writers by programming the 1977 homosexual Holocaust drama Bent and Edward Albee's The Play About the Baby -- which coincides with the Alliance's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf next March.

Short commute

Marietta's Class Act Theatre is moving next door, from 6 to 8 Powder Springs St., to occupy the former home of its neighbor, Theatre With a Mission. Theatre With a Mission artistic director Clyde Annandale let the lease expire in February and is currently touring with his one-man show Faces of Love.

The theater is currently staging The Prisoner of Second Avenue through June 8.


Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.


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