YOUR ARMS TOO SHORT TO BOX WITH GOD, by Vinnette Carroll; produced by Tom Mallow and James Janek; directed by Vinnettee Carroll; words and music by Alex Bradford and Micki Grant; choreographed by Talley Beatty.
With William-Keebler Hardy Jr., Julius Richard Brown, Ralph Farrington, Gwendolyn Nelson Fleming, Thomas J. Fouse Jr., Elijah Gill, L. Michael Gray, Jennifer-Yvette Holliday, Linda Morton, Leonard Piggee, Rodney Saulsberry, Quincella Swyningan and Linda E. Young.
At the Warner Theater through Sept. 23.
So you think you know how to hop, do you?
Well, try hopping along at shotgun pace with your free leg extended horizontally forward and doing its own rollicking dance step in mid-air. If you land on your keister, you know one of the reasons William-Keebler Hardy Jr. has top billing at the Warner Theater these nights and you don't.
Another reason is described in the playbill to "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God," the gospel revue and passion play, back for its third Washington visit.Hardy, according to the playbill, has a "unique singing range [that] goes from low baritone to a falsetto above the keyboard." It's true. He can hit notes across virtually every known range of the human voice, and some ranges we associate with exotic animals. But for Hardy, that's small potatoes. He can also sound like two singers -- a baritone and a soprano -- at once. And who knows what other feats this walking, grinning, human Moog synthesizer is capable of?
No sooner has Hardy wound up his first turn as just about the fieriest firebrand preacher that ever was, than the Warner stage is seized by a second singer with equally miraculous gifts and yet another hyphenated first name.
Jennifer-Yvette Holliday, according to the program, "makes her professional debut in this production." Hah! Admittedly, Holliday received her training in the Baptist churches of Houston -- which may meet some definitions of amateur territory -- but she conducts herself like an old trouper. She also conducts herself like a woman with four or five times the usual number of lungs.
Holliday has only three full-blown songs to sing, and all three were followed by tremendous standing ovations at Tuesday night's preview. With all due allowance for the acoustical vagaries of the Warner, she has one of the loudest, most rousing voices that ever was.
A large part -- the best part -- of "Your Arms Too Short" is simply a gospel concert, with the late Alex Bradford and Micki Grant's songs splendidly performed by a superior cast and band.
If church were always like this, we'd all go eight times a week.
But Vinnette Carroll's show, first produced by her Urban Arts Corp in New York four years ago, has, like many a church service, periods of less-universal interest. The first act is built around a passion play (taken from the Book of St. Matthew) that includes some unexpectedly limp songs and some choreography, by Talley Beatty, with far more motion than imagination.
The story of the crucifixion, obviously, has strong dramatic possibilities. Perhaps Carroll's decision to make Jesus an all-dancing, nonspeaking character is what robs this particular rendering of most of its potential force.
But then the passion play is over, the cast cuts loose with a series of gospel songs that have much of the audience -- gospel and non-gospel aficionados alike -- shaking their hands in the air and crying a well-deserved "Amen."