You can't tell a book by its title. Nor a musical. The somber-sounding Sanctified suggests a deep religiosity but delivers a rollicking entertainment certain to delight. The dancing and the laughter in no way undermine any spiritual message, but the narrative brings together 15 characters, each determined to have his or her own way, and they're not shy about voicing it. For much of the show, they are all onstage at the same time, thanks to the adroit direction and choreography of Patdro Harris, and virtually all get their turn to shine in the spotlight.
The pastor for East Piney Grove Baptist Church in rural South Carolina wants to make some changes to the church's music in hopes of revitalizing its dwindling coffers, but he meets with resistance from the deacon and many parishioners. The plot seems simplicity itself — the church is broke, and the musical accompanist drinks, as did the organist as far back as Our Town — but it provides a full-fledged comic twist on a traditional situation.
The dialogue is brisk and salty. And while the parishioners are fueled by easily recognizable pettiness and vanity, authenticity, heightened by comic exaggeration, rings like a bell through the entire play. I won't betray the few surprises in the standard plot here, but keep your eye on the delivery men. What is exciting and richly theatrical is the body language of the hugely professional team of actors that Ensemble has assembled. For example, Clara (Alice M. Gatling) is a quarrelsome choir member, and when she is dissed — told off in no uncertain terms — her soundless reactions as she digests this, and seeks to salvage some dignity, had me in stitches.
The songs are varied and as lively as would be expected from a church choir but also have the sparkle and sheen of sophistication. There's a disappointingly slow opening as the likable Pastor Jones (Nate Jones) prays for guidance, but this quickly segues into a star turn as the two delivery men, a young man (Joseph "JoeP." Palmore) and an older one (Anthony Boggess-Glover), sing "I'll Be Mister, You'll Be Sir" as they vie for authority. These two turn out to be major characters, and they work brilliantly together with a rapport rivaling that of Abbott and Costello. Palmore was superb as Emmett Till in Ensemble's recent powerhouse drama — I'd love to see him as J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. It seems he can do anything well.
In Act One, "Early in the Morning" is sweet and enticing and livened further by some double-entendre pantomime. "Time for a Change" presents rebels with fire but no clear direction. The pace is dramatically faster in Act Two, fueled by two early rap songs, a rapid-fire one by Kendrick "Kay" Brown as Jamal and a slower one by Palmore, equally effective in its own way. Brown has the dance moves of a Fred Astaire, and both have the use of hand gestures down to a comedic science. The younger generation dominates the stage for most of this act, and they do it well.
Act Two also includes memorable and delightful "dueling choirs" as the older members sing traditionally and the younger ones pep it up. Pastor Jones and the deacon (an excellent Jason E. Carmichael) are amusing and powerful as they dance their way through "the dozens," a serial exchange of escalating insults. Jones is convincing but seems too nice to be a match for the machinations and conniving of a Machiavellian church deacon and a choir in revolt. Carmichael is compelled by the script to be stuffy and officious in Act One, but in Act Two he takes the gloves off to show us what he can do, and it's wonderful to see.
Shemica Hill has a cameo star turn as Sister Pauletta, arriving to upgrade the choir, and she breathes new life into the meaning of diva. She demonstrates an operatic voice, but we don't get to hear more than a few notes of this genre — is this a missed opportunity? Or was it cut to streamline an already full play? Her costumes (by Shirley Whitmore) brilliantly underline her persona, especially a rose-peach number with webbed sleeves. I also admired a yellow minidress with black-and-white-striped legs for Monique, the young men's love interest, played by Candice D'Meza with talent, charm and a great hairstyle. And the new choir robes for the cast were attractive and colorful, without straying from their purpose.
Regina Renae Hearne plays Sarah, the senior member of the choir, and delivers both a quiet authority and superb comic timing; she is the real anchor of responsibility among a motley choir. Tracey E. Wheat is strong and effective as the pianist with a less-than-secret flaw. Rodrick Randall is hilarious and affecting as Bobby, who stammers but can still sell a song.
The excellent book is by Javon Johnson and the toe-tapping music is by Rollo A. Dilworth; the musical direction at Ensemble is by Carlton Leake, who has worked effectively with director Patdro Harris on a number of musicals. The handsome set, by Liz Freese, represents the church itself, modern blond wood with a stained-glass window center stage, and it serves well.
Sanctified won two 2009 Black Theater Alliance Awards, Best Musical and Best Writing for a Play. It had its premiere in 2008 at the Congo Square Theatre Company in Chicago and has been produced in Nashville, Washington, D.C., and Greenville, Mississippi, prior to its current run at Ensemble. It is strong and exciting enough that one wonders: Is New York in its future? The power is in the characterizations of Javon Johnson's creations, each vivid and authentic, and the originality lies in Johnson's fresh approach. The weakness is in the opening and in giving in to a touch of sentimentality in the windup. Also, while the two delivery men, fully integrated into the play, make for an exciting and mysterious presence, it may be that they need to be developed further. And if there are revisions, I want to hear Sister Pauletta sing that aria!
But what we have now is wonderful: Spot-on acting, lively songs, hip dance moves and comedic timing combine to deliver pure entertainment and a rollicking good time.
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