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Elmer Gantry – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 22, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington) and Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) -  Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington) and Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer has gone back to the well to remount Elmer Gantry, a show he co-produced in DC with writer John Bishop, composer Mel Marvin and lyricist Bob Satuloff sixteen years ago. Reimagined by the original team, this massive musical based on Sinclair Lewis’ quintessential novel now boasts several new numbers and a re-worked script.

Backed by a ten-piece orchestra, there is a great deal of heart and soul in this redemptive tale of a down-on-his-luck preacher and a young, ambitious evangelist, Sister Sharon Falconer. When Gantry (Charlie Pollock), a traveling farm equipment salesman on his last dime, watches the second-rate religious troupe at a revival meeting, he seizes the opportunity to join them, wooing the beautiful Sharon and transforming their hokey act into a big time, holy roller spectacle filled with gospel singing, Sunday go-to-meeting psalms and mournful folk songs. “People want to feel that heat in their lives. They want to laugh. They want to cry!” he tells her. And by the time they get to Topeka, Gantry has created a full-blown, berobed, hallelujah choir, and the pair’s sermonizing has reached a feverish pitch.

Ashley Buster (Epatha Washington), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington), Daphne Epps (Grace Washington) - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Ashley Buster (Epatha Washington), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington), Daphne Epps (Grace Washington) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

It’s at this point, midway through Act I with the addition of three gospel-singing sisters led by Nova Y. Payton, where the show truly catches fire. The Washington Sisters played by Payton, Ashley Buster and Daphne Epps bring a huge, near dwarfing presence to the rest of the chorus. In “Carry that Ball”, a football-themed spiritual that substitutes the word “touchdown” for “hallelujah”, Payton takes her singing to the rafters, electrifying the audience and juicing up the show.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer) and company - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer) and company – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey does a fine job as the ambitious and charismatic Sister Sharon whose past is as suspect as Gantry’s. In the tender tune, “You Don’t Know Who I Am”, she lets him know she has had to reinvent herself in order to evolve.

Unfortunately believable and powerfully passionate performances by Morrissey et alia are not matched by Pollock, whose uneven performance especially in Act II (he runs out of steam in their big duet “With You” and his solo turn in “My American Dream”), unreliable voice, and buzz cut hairstyle with trendy facial stubble, all contribute to his seeming out of date and out of sync with the other actors.

Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) and Bobby Smith (Frank Shallard) - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) and Bobby Smith (Frank Shallard) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Watch for Bobby Smith, outstanding as Frank Shallard, Gantry’s slick-as-a-snake associate; and Harry A. Winter as Bob Faucher, the unscrupulous banker, to keep this revival afloat.

Through November 9th 2014 at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

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