Watching "Little Willie Jr.'s Resurrection," a new musical that opened Tuesday night at the Warner Theater, is something like viewing an enthusiastic cast in search of excellent material.
But to the detriment of good art, the energetic and talented cast can't overcome oversimplified dramatic situations and cardboard characters. Even Johnny Thompson's snappy gospel music is undistinguished.
The musical traces the odyssey of five generations of a black family, from a plantation in South Carolina in the 1850s to Harlem in the 1960s. Willie is a name that follows the male members of the family.
The main problem with the first act is that the story unfolds like so many other trite accounts of antebellum life. A planter rapes a slave woman. A southern mistress whiles away a hot day talking with a female house slave. A male slave is enticed into the bedroom of his mistress and ends up accidentally shooting himself while cleaning his master's pistols.
Simply thrown into a dramatic situation without benefit of character development, these incidents make for something worse than banality.
To his credit in writing the book, Oscar L. Johnson had the independent spirit to show blacks and whites operating on a neighborly level. But even that relationship, set in the 1940s, is marred by melodrama.
Two friends, one black, the other white, carryin on an absurd argument about wiping a bottle top when they drink after each other.
The second act, set in Harlem in the 1960s, concerns the fourth generation. Precious time is wasted by having two women gossip about working for white people, relating to black men and testifying to the Lord. It all sounds comfortably folksy, but it's also trivial.
Trouble starts when the family's son, a college basketball star, brings home a pregnant white girl friend and announces their plans to marry. The father, mother and family friend become distraught. Tempers flare and father and son are at each other's throats.
But in walks a white detective and a completely unexpected turn of events takes place. The ending is just too pat to be believable.
One of the most redeeming features of this production, which ran briefly in Philadelphia, is the zestful cast. Arlene Mills is infectiously humorous as the nonstop gossip. And Kathleen Marshall, who plays Miss Clara, the southern mistress, performs with charm and alacrity.
But they're not enough. This show needs revamping from the ground up.