From the moment Patti LaBelle lands on the Warner Theatre stage in "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God," arms pumping, heels kicking, dress flying and voice belting, she takes over the stage like a firecracker in a living room. Is she an actress? No. Is she a performer? Emphatically yes.
This two-week engagement is being billed as LaBelle's "theatrical debut," which is something of a misnomer since she is not called upon to say lines (there are none in the show) or portray a character other than herself. Indeed, the show could be renamed the Patti LaBelle Rock-'em Sock-'em Go Get-'em Boogie Gospel Hour without any misrepresentation. Monday, by the way, is the first day of "Patti LaBelle Week," so designated by the D.C. City Council.
This is the fourth visit of Vinette Carroll's production, which was inspired by the Book of Matthew. The first act tells the story, through music and dance, of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The second act is a sort of postcript that is really just an excuse for a few more songs.
I've heard more inspiring gospel music in local churches, but then this is souped-up, slicked-up Broadway gospel music, in which the power of the human voice (and there are some wonderfully powerful ones in this cast) is subservient to the power of electronic amplification and the deafening accompaniment of the orchestra.
Opening night was marred by repeated difficulties with the amplification; LaBelle handled it gamely, gesturing to the sound technicians when her mike was off. She gave up on the body mike for the seond act in favor of a wireless handheld one, but even that seemed to be erratic. It really is annoying -- if we must be subjected to amplification so that live performances will sound as nearly like a record as possible, it seems minimal to expect that the microphones work. At one point LaBelle and the company sing a number about power -- meaning the power of faith. Somehow, as LaBelle tapped her microphone, it took on another interpretation entirely.
Okay, so the values of this show are neither the script nor the music. The element that makes this show a lasting favorite is the performance, and given that, there is no reason why a piece that was originally an ensemble show can't be turned into a star vehicle. Some of the other performers shine like lasers: Quincella's dancing is beautifully fluid and full of emotion, the gorgeous Julius Richard Brown in the nominal role of the preacher was powerful, and other singers like The Bobby Hill , Tommi Johnson and L. Michael Gray, and dancers like the muscular Elijah Gill as Jesus and Ralf Paul Haze as a Judas in dreadlocks take the music and movement and make it live.
LaBelle, whose 20-year career began when she was the lead of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, has been touring as a solo performer for the last four years. Gloriously attired in William Schroder's splendid Africa-flavored costumes, she skitters from one side of the stage to the other and flexes a wide-ranging voice. She even goes into the aisles (losing the spotlight at one point and singing in the dark) and gets members of the audience to dance with her, improvising occasionally in the style of a solo performer. "I love you, Jesus, because you put me in this here show," she sang at one point, and the audience seemed to agree.
YOUR ARMS TOO SHORT TO BOX WITH GOD, produced by Fran and Barry Weissler; conceived and directed by Vinette Carroll; music and lyrics by Alex Bradford and Micki Grant; sets and costumes by William Schroder; choreography by Talley Beatty; restaged by Ralf Paul Haze; lighting by Richard Winkler; sound by Christopher K. Bond; orchestrations and dance music by H.B. Barnum; musical direction by Michael Powell.
With: Patti LaBelle, Lehman Beneby, Julius Richard Brown, Nora Cole, Jamil K. Garland, Elijah Gill, L. Michael Gray, Ralf Paul Haze, Cynthia Henry, The Bobby Hill, Elmore James, Linda James, Tommi Johnson, Janice Nunn Nelson, Dwayne Phelps, Quincella, KiKi Shepard, Leslie Hardesty Sisson, Faruma S. Williams, and Marilynn Winbush. At the Warner Theatre through Dec. 20.