Spirit is willing 

Preacher from the Black Lagoon sends up old-time religion

"Let us pray," announces Phillip DePoy when he takes the stage in Preacher from the Black Lagoon. It's a fitting start for the first production by a newly launched theater company. DePoy is no stranger to Atlanta theater -- he once helmed Theatrical Outfit and has worked with most every house in town -- but starting a successful new troupe here almost requires divine intervention.

Luckily, it's the voices of man, not God, that make Preacher float, albeit through a lagoon of largely charted waters.

DePoy and veteran actress Lee Nowell co-wrote and star in the musical comedy, the first offering from the Metropolitan Theatre Alliance. A stand-up version of the "Old-Time Gospel Hour," the play accurately parodies a Protestant camp meeting, complete with collection plate. Noelle Kayser (daughter of actor Chris Kayser) and Deborah Tawil also appear, but the show focuses mainly on the two leads, and to good effect.

Preacher (DePoy) and Miss Etta (Nowell) are the Jim and Tammy Faye of Jesus Inc., a money-driven ministry that claims to be "the only way in hell you'll see the Pearly Gates." Miss Etta reveals she "looked like a hag" before she found Jesus, and the pair promises God will give followers earthly rewards like better looks and more money.

No church service is complete without a goodly dose of gospel singing, and DePoy and Nowell cut their bluegrass with earnest harmony and underplayed irony. In one of the funnier musical moments, the leads croon "Bring it to Him," a send-up of a Sam Cooke classic as an homage to religious graft. Their "12 Steps to Jesus" program is the sermon's central message, and it ties together the show's two halves, though the transition is not entirely fluid.

A flashback sequence reveals how Preacher and Miss Etta met, playing a game of "Name That Bible Verse" at the now-defunct Austin Avenue Buffet. Unfortunately, bizarre background Muzak and some shaky tone shifts create one of the show's weakest points.

The flashback is a segue for the duo to reveal that they're fakers playing "The Jesus Game" for personal gain. What matters, they say, is that the audience "wants to believe," making their true intentions irrelevant on the greater path to redemption.

While Preacher and Miss Etta prime the audience, a trapeze artist (Tawil) performs acrobatics behind a scrim. The visual concession is distracting at first, but Topher Kohan's subtle lighting design helps weave the shadowy performance into the show's greater action. The aerialist's complicated movements reflect the tightrope act of the hucksters downstage, and a later revelation explains her mysterious presence.

The second half of Preacher gets away from any real plot attempts, freeing up Nowell and DePoy for more stand-up. Preacher taps audience members in a Bible interpretation skit (requiring an impressive round of improv comedy from both actors) and even works in a couple of magic tricks disguised as miracles.

As the strong-jawed reverend, DePoy does a decent job balancing satire and solemnity. Preacher's Hank Hill-ish quips and good ol' boy posturing are played with subtle nuance by this true son of the South.

The real star of the show, though, is Nowell, whose lovely voice cranks out Baptist hymns and cuts down the congregation with equal aplomb. Her take on the small-town Bible belle, with chirps of "praise his name" and hilarious scriptural malapropisms, is alarmingly dead-on.

Neither lead gets to exhibit much acting range, since the script makes the 90-minute show somewhat one-note. Poking fun at money-hungry ministers is a skit we've seen before, and the show doesn't do much to elevate the parody much beyond "ain't them Christian folk funny?" A clunky plot twist leaves the play on an appropriately preachy end-note that doesn't necessarily resonate with today's cynical masses.

But what matters is that Nowell and DePoy make the audience want to believe, allowing us to forgive their transgressions and focus instead on the show's joyful noises. Let us pray that future Metropolitan Theatre Alliance productions carry the fire of Preacher but leave its brimstone behind.

Preacher from the Black Lagoon plays through Aug. 5 at 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid St., with performances Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 2 p.m. $20. 404-523-7647.

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