One of the things that set us apart as people is our yearning for something better, a higher cause if you will. One of our greatest failings can be relying on someone else for our happiness. Signature Theatre’s Elmer Gantry is a rollicking musical experience that holds you every unbelieving step of the way. It is sprinkled with faith, ambition, and unbridled passion. Most importantly, its just as relevant today.
This work, about a preacher man with a shady past, is based on Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 novel and was a scandal when first published—making it to both the best seller and the banned list. Praised in literary circles, it was shunned in small town America for thinking that a preacher man could be so so…human. Here it is brought back from its birth at Signature Stage a few years ago, with an updated score and book, by John Bishop updated by his wife Lisa Bishop.
Front and center we meet salesman and fast talking drifter Elmer Gantry played by Charlie Pollack, travelling the trains town by town in the depression era Midwest.
Charlie Pollack’s Elmer is a smooth, ambling huckster, and, as if requested from central casting, bears more than a passing resemblance to Matthew McConaughey—in his loose gait, easy southern drawl, angled turn of the head and that cat-ate-the-canary smile. He gives a winning performance as a man using his gifts—inspiring and conniving people—who is just not born in the right era.
When he meets Sister Sharon Falconer, he is a moth to the flame, as both realize a good combination of talents. Marie Kate Morrissey is the driven idealist Sharon Falconer, leading a group of musical missionaries thru small towns conducting tent revivals, driven to save souls…or just be a success.
It is sprinkled with faith, ambition, and unbridled passion.
With beguiling eyes and ruby red lipstick seldom seen on a preacher gal, Morrissey exudes strength and purpose for her goals. Her vocals were nicely balanced, and her duet with Pollack in “With You” was a highlight.
But, far from the double-dealing Sky Masterson and innocent Sister Sara Brown of Guys and Dolls, this partnership is less conviction than ambition. Something’s got to give, here in pre-paradise.
Fine supporting performances abound. Signature stalwart Jessica Lauren Ball as an innocent member of the troupe caught in Gantry’s dalliance tendencies is just right. Bobby Smith as Elmer’s preacher friend and conscience gives a fine turn, with a nice touch of authenticity.
The musical composition flows well in the show, with the required character songs explaining their intent. It is filled with a variety of the down home religious choral music and infused by the knockout vocals of the Washington sisters, a trio of gals Elmer adds to the troupe to bring in the unsaved.
Scenic design (Dan Conway) is composed of rafter beams aloft and full wood panels surrounding the stage and providing backdrop, simulating a barn. The set-less layout providing quick flow to the show, mimicking the town to town pace of the missionary troupe. There was a certain light from the sky moment, filled with shaking and destruction, as the revival center is destroyed. A little formulaic, reminiscent of a certain previous musical involving a helicopter…
Director Eric Schaeffer has offered up a tight, energetic tale with a strong score and a fascinating clash of personalities. Both know who they are, and think they know what they want. Watching the excitement of success turn to passion for both is a visceral part of the show. The good book is put aside as these good lookn’ people have their way.
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with an intermission.
Elmer Gantry is playing at the Signature Theatre, 2400 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA , From Oct. 7 to Nov. 9. For tickets to this or other performances in the 2014-15 season, call the Signature Box Office at 703 820 9771 or online.