DADDY GOODNESS - At the National Theater through October 7.
"It needs work."
That's what everyone always says about musical comedies in their pre Broadway runs. It can mean anything from hedging one's bet about something you personally love, just in case New York doesn't agree, to -- if you're a friend of the management -- a kind way of saying that it's hopeless.
Well, "Daddy Goodness" needs work. That is, it really needs work, which means that there's enough there to make a good show, but the problems, if not solved, will overcome the virtues.
These problems, in musicals, tend to be always the same: It's too long. There are extraneous dance numbers. The production is elaborate, but the plot line is skimpy. The stars are marvelous when they're singing and dancing but don't seem to know what to do with themselves in between.
Probably, this week's show will be different from the one shown to critics at the opening. That was just good enough to send one home with a pleasant sense of enjoyment -- mixed with the fervent hope that the people concerned with the show were at that moment ordering lots of coffee from room service.
The story is about an old derelict who is accidentally involved in what appears to be a miracle and, with the help of a sharp businessman, uses the opportunity to develop a highly profitable new religion, with himself as God.
At its best, it's a good-natured and spirited spoof on innovative religion. Ted Ross, the Cowardly Lion in the Broadway and film versions of "The Wiz," has another combination of grandiose delusion with a comic awareness of self-limits. Freda Payne, as a reformed prostitute, has some powerful numbers with lines such as "My heart is open, but the rest of me is closed." When the second-line characters have center stage, the quality of singing and dancing is maintained.
But -- and it's a big but -- there's no plot structure to hold all this together. Adapted from a 1960 play by the late Richard Wright and Louis Sapin, the musical book, by Ron Miller and Shauneille Perry, pays little attention to the point, which should be Daddy Goodness's conversion from impersonating the Lord to developing a truly religious interest in the Lord's work. The songs, by Ken Hirsch and Ron Miller, take him from one feeling to another, but little attention is paid to how he got there.
Even less is done to sketch in the love story. Payne is somehow involved with a kind of Our Town narrator character, played by Rod Perry, but what keeps them apart after she has been saved, and what gets them back together again, remain a mystery. Musical audiences are willing to settle for very little in the way of live-story logic, but this omission is obtrusive.
Cutting the show ought to be simple. There are two numbers in a night club that, however cute, have nothing to do with anything. The gospel songs are spirited and funny, but, being all on the highest pitch, they lack the proper emotional buildup. That miracle scene in the beginning needs to be made more plausible, even for what calls itself "a musical fable," because it's crucial. Santo Loquasto's settings are clever, but so complicated that they keep drawing attention to themselves, rolling in and out and around.
What's needed, most of all, for everyone concerned, is an awful lot of midnight coffee.