Despite the Title, Sanctified at Ensemble Theatre Is a Rollicking Good Time

The set-up:

In Sanctified , now running at Ensemble Theatre, the pastor for East Piney Grove Baptist Church in rural South Carolina wants to bring some musical changes to revitalize the dwindling coffers, but meets with resistance from the deacon and many parishioners.

The execution:

Don't be misled by the title, this is no attempt to save your soul -- those of you who need it, and you know who you are. It is instead a full-fledged comic twist on a traditional situation - the church is broke and the church musical accompanists drinks, as did the organist as far back as Our Town. The originality is in the dialogue, brisk and salty. The parishioners are fueled by easily recognizable pettiness and vanity, and the ring of authenticity, heightened by comic exaggeration, rings like a bell through the entire play.

There are a few surprises in the standard plot, and I won't betray them here, but what is exciting and richly theatrical is the body language of the hugely professional team of actors that Ensemble has assembled. Each one is a standout in creating an entertaining characterization and delivering it with energy and style. 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 is a disappointingly slow opening as the likable Pastor Jones (Nate Jones) prays for guidance, but this quickly segues into a star turn as 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 Abbott and Costello. Also in Act One, "Early in the Morning" is sweet and enticing, and livened further by some double-entendre pantomime.

The pace is dramatically faster in Act Two, fueled by two early rap songs, one 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. This act includes memorable and delightful "dueling choirs" as the older members sing traditionally and the younger ones pep it up. And 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.

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, with costumes (by Shirley Whitmore) to match. Regina Renae Hearne plays Sarah, the senior member of the choir, and she delivers both a quiet authority and superb comic timing. Rodrick Randall is hilarious and affecting as Bobby, who stammers but can still sell a song. The book is by Javon Johnson and the music by Rollo A. Dilworth, musical direction by Carlton Leake and overall direction and wonderful choreography by Patdro Harris.

The verdict:

Despite a sober-sounding title, spot-on acting, lively songs, hip dance moves and comedic timing combine to deliver pure entertainment and a rollicking good time.

Sanctified continues through July 29 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street. For ticketing or information, call 713-520-0055 or visit the company website.

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Jim Tommaney