"DADDY GOODNESS," a musical with book by Ron Miller and Shauneille Perry, lyrics by Ron Miller and music by Ken Hirsch, based on a play by Richard Wright and Louis Sapin; directed by Israel Hicks, choreography and musical staging by Louis Johnson; setting by Santo Loquasto; lighting by Jennifer Tipton; costumes by Bernard Johnson; produced by Ashton Springer with Motown, Marty Markinson, Joseph Harris and Donald Tick.
With Clifton Davis, Freda Payne, Ted Ross and Rod Perry.
The the National Theater through Oct. 7.
The ideal musical comedy plot moves forward in graceful bounds like a gazelle, disappearing behind a thicket whenever it threatens to distract our attention from the surrounding singing, dancing and audiovisual splendor.
The plot to "Daddy Goodness," which opened last night at the National Theater, has the discretion to stay hidden much of the time. But when it makes an appearance, it surges up from the surf like some giant mechanized reptile in a Japanese monster movie, wreaks a little havoc and then gently slips under water again.
Based on a play by Richard Wright and Louis Sapin, "Daddy Goodness" concerns a small-town drunk who is mistaken for dead and then, in a miracle appropriately accompanied by thunder and lightning, is restored to life. The townspeople take him for the Lord, and at the urging of a local huckster he agrees to head up a new faith under the slogan "Spread Joy!"
Ted Ross, the balloon-faced Wiz of "The Wiz," has the title role and makes the most of it. But Daddy Goodness is an ill-conceived hero, especially in the lumbering first half of the first act, when he alternates inexplicably between dumbness and shrewdness and neither does nor says much that would make him a plausible Messiah.
The mood of "Daddy Goodness" is fantasy, but even fantasy needs more internal logic.
To compensate for its dramatic frailties, "Daddy Goodness" offers some pulse-quickening choreography by Louis Johnson, several memorable songs by the Motown team of Ron Miller and Ken Hirsch, an ambitious array of rolling, interlocking scenery by Santo Loquasto, and a passel of strong performances.
As things stand, the choreography -- funny, offbeat and true to both story and characters -- heads the list of "Daddy Goodness'" virtues.
For the song called "Spread Joy," Johnson has had the audacity to ask women to dance in long, tight dresses, and for "Don't Touch That Dial." he has splendidly captured the reverential slickness of airwaves religion.
This is Miller and Hirsch's first musical, and they seem more comfortable, on the whole, with songs designed to stop the show than with ones designed to advance it.
A few of Miller's lyrics are of the making-time variety (for instance "One more step/You can't go wrong/You'll surely get to heaven if you sing your song/With a hallelujah chorus for the glory of the Lord"). But with that number, "One More Step," Miller and Hirsch show that they know how to set an audience's feet stomping, and they have written one absolutely right comic number for Motown star Freda Payne, in which she announces, "I Aint' No Whore No More."
Everyone in the cast who is called on to sing can sing -- a pleasant rarity -- and most of the characters are sharply and entertainingly acted, too.
Besides Ross, with his winningly Bert Lahr-like leer, there is Clifton Davis, who appeared in the Joseph Papp production of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" and in the Washington based TV series "That's My Mamma" and is appropriately smooth and slinky here as Daddy Goodness' manager. Rod Perry, star of "S.W.A.T." as well as Cicely Tyson's husband in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," imparts more feeling to his role than the script has given him any basis for. And Payne fights a laudable uphill battle with a character who, though integral to the story, is given scarcely anything to do or say.
This must be the week of the hyphenated first name. Two of them are prominent in the cast of "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God" at the Warner, and in "Daddy Goodness," Carol-jean Lewis is an absolute cutup as an alternately sultry and pious member of the flock.
But in spite of all these valiant contributions. "Daddy Goodness" is a hodgepodge that comes up several miracles short.