Highway to Heaven 

Music and fanfare drown out thin plot of Rejoice!

The spirit moves you from the opening notes of Rejoice! Cheryl West's new musical opens on a prayer-circle hymn, followed by a rollicking, hallelujah-raising performance from a veteran gospel-singing evangelical family act. With time-tested songs by "Father of Gospel Music" Thomas A. Dorsey, a superb, passionate ensemble, and lavish sets and costumes, True Colors Theatre Company's Rejoice! sends your heart through the roof time and again.

True Colors frontman Kenny Leon directs a spectacle that can stir the soul even when the flesh -- or, more specifically, the script -- is weak. West offers a familiar and at times shamelessly melodramatic treatment of generational tension in a fictional musical family. Though the plot of Rejoice! proves to be a leaky, rickety vessel, the singers and the songs fill its sails with abundance.

The introductions alone excite the audience when Marchin' Mississippi Macon (Hassan El-Amin) and his brood take the stage. Stars in his troupe include Macon's charismatic second wife, Zee (Chandra Currelley), his angel-voiced youngest daughter, Sarah (Julie Dickens), pushy daughter-in-law Candy (Shaunyce Omar) and rebellious son Junior (Matthew Johnson). Though Macon boasts of his decades-long, "almost Grammy-nominated" career, Junior pushes his cash-strapped father to perform gospel music that's more contemporary. "You mean temporary," Macon fires back, defending old-school gospel stylings and his own authority as if they're the same thing.

Other fissures build in the family until the group splits up. The second act takes up nearly a year later, with Junior leading a new group in a successful hip-hop flavored arrangement of "Highway to Heaven." Macon's fortunes continue to tumble as his now-reduced outfit performs at "Jolly Joe's Restaurant Gospel Buffet." El-Amin's acting suits the scale of Macon's character, who could be a proud, angry King Lear on the gospel circuit. Despite Rejoice!'s potential for tragedy, the playwright emphasizes more crowd-pleasing schmaltz, such as an 11th-hour medical emergency and a spunky kid singer (talented Tatiana McConnico).

West wittily uses Dorsey tunes to illustrate relationships, such as Macon and Zee conveying their tender marriage by softly crooning "Forgive Me Lord and Try Me One More Time," or father and son expressing their tensions through "I Got to Live the Life I Sing About." Rejoice!, which features 18 cast members, a 25-voice choir and a five-piece band, also takes advantage of its scale. Choreographer Patdro Harris crafts witty and inventive steps that at times deliberately push "gangsta" moves a little far, finding incongruous humor when danced by church-lady back-up singers.

Rochelle Barker's sleek set evokes the architecture of a modern-day mega-church, but at times looks as much like an art-deco nightclub as some of the family's homespun Southern venues. The production also suffered from inconsistent sound mixing and mics on opening night, drowning out snippets of dialogue and some singers' big moments.

Rejoice!'s strangest touch involves young singer and backwoods mechanic Coot D'Crow (Eric Ankrim), introduced while wearing overalls and scrubbing clothes with washboard and tub. Initially, a drawling, holy fool worthy of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Coot becomes more "normal" and even falls into a romance with one of Macon's daughters. Ankrim holds his own as a singer and brings out the winning comedy in the role, but it's hard to know how to grasp such a quirky character. The new script tends to plant the seeds of plot threads (such as one character's drinking problem) that can be easily pruned the farther Leon's New York-bound production travels.

Rejoice! stands out in the young history of Leon's True Colors Theatre, which specializes in plays that either draw from the African-American canon or illuminate aspects of black heritage. Previous shows, like Langston Hughes' similarly lavish Tambourines to Glory, also had flawed material, but greater richness in character or history. Rejoice! seems thin by comparison, built around easy applause lines. Its very simplicity makes it seem like a natural for a touring show.

Rejoice!'s musical foundation, however, proves solid as a rock. The song arrangements provide a kind of argument between old-fashioned and cutting-edge gospel musical styles, with funk and modern R&B forms in the mix as well. Rejoice! suggests we should honor the past and stick by our families, but also that the best approach to tradition is to break from it.

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