KPBS AIRDATE: October 31, 1991
Lock up your wives and daughters. Elmer Gantry’s back. Preachin’ the gospel– and singin’ it, too. As seductive and provocative as ever. The new “Elmer” just breezed into the La Jolla Playhouse, with script rewrites being penciled in right up until opening night. A few more cuts and it’ll be just about perfect. The kind of new musical we’ve been needing for a long time: Tuneful melodies, charismatic characters, a sexy love-story, and a little socio-political commentary.
Some of the satirical bite has gone out of Sinclair Lewis’ original. But some new bounce was put in. This is holy rollin’, down-home, clap-along American music. A blend of folk, country, bluegrass, jazz, blues and gospel. As American as… Main Street. Or Elmer Gantry.
The 1927 novel has been moved from World War I to the Depression era, and the story’s been distilled down to the ramblin’, gamblin, fast-talkin’ salesman Gantry meetin’ up with Sister Sharon Falconer, a revivalist with a mission. He brings heavy doses of hype and spunk to her tent-show, and equal amounts of sensuality to her bedroom. And then there are a few sleazy businessmen who try to take advantage of her, but that stuff’s a bit murky and undeveloped. The spotlight mostly falls on Elmer and Sharon, and that talented troupe of hers that just sings its fool heart out.
There’s a show-stopper in act one, “I’ve Got an Appointment,” that has Gantry turning up the heat, the rhythm, the gospel, the pure Broadway
musical magic. The audience was on its feet on opening night. It’s hard not to get caught up in the evangelical fever.
But there are some sweet songs, too, and sad ones, and funny ones and sexy ones. The nine musicians are terrific, and Mel Marvin’s music gives them plenty to sink their teeth into. Bob Satuloff’s lyrics are uninspired, but they work just fine. John Bishop’s book is tight and well-crafted. Things get a little too soppy and sentimental in act two, and that’s where the scissors would do neat work.
But this show’s a winner. And it’s got Broadway written all over its face. It’s slickly professional in every way. Heidi Landesman’s set is drop-dead fabulous. From rolling plains with changing clouds to a concrete-and-steel city labyrinth that’s a dynamite opener for act two. A train whizzes toward us, a car drives across the stage. Wow. This is technical wizardry without pyrotechnics. Superb lighting, sound and costumes, too. And Des McAnuff’s direction: Perfectly modulated. Heated but not overdone.
And then there’s the cast. Mark Harelick had a hard act to follow. For the first twenty minutes, I kept thinking of Burt Lancaster in the unforgettable 1960 movie. But Harelick certainly rose to the occasion. And then some. He’s fiery and commanding. And the ideal foil for Sharon Scruggs as Sister Sharon — personally, physically and vocally. She played the role in the original Washington production in 1988, and she’s beautiful in it, with the look and the tough-vulnerability of Meryl Streep.
There are some fabulous voices up on the stage, not the least of which
are the Supreme three-woman black vocalists: Darlene Love, Jennifer Leigh Warren and Lynette DuPré, who do a knockout number, “Troubled Blues.”
I could go on — and so should this show. It has a future, as well as an historical past. And, thematically speaking, it’s got love and faith on its side.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.