The gospel truth: In its modest way, the Studio Theater's glowing, touchingly human "Tambourines to Glory" can stand proud next to Arena Stage's recent gospel/theater experiment, the grand and gaudy "The Gospel at Colonnus."
"Tambourines," written in 1963 by Langston Hughes, "the poet laureate of Harlem," is a simply drawn duel between vice and virtue, with the bad guys dressed in easy-to-spot bright red. The show's gospel numbers, mostly written by Hughes, with Jobe Huntley, are sung here with full-throated fervor, and they sound like standards.
Into hard-times Harlem walks the handsome Devil, in his current incarnation as the sleek and snaky Buddy Lomax. Big bad Buddy snares tarnished angel Laura Reed with a promise to help her "make money on this religious jive" when Laura starts a streetcorner church -- the Tambourine Temple -- as a get- rich-quick scheme. The church soon becomes the devil's playground -- Buddy's running numbers in the church, chasing the lambs of the flock and slapping Laura around -- until she stabs him in the vestibule.
Director Frederic Lee does well with the cast of 17, although Studio's cramped space limits the range of movement to huddles and tiny circular parades. Music director Ed Rejuney's arrangements are as good-time-churchy as they come, and Russell Metheney contributes the spare and clever staging. A minor quibble: At nearly three hours, the show is overlong.
The performances are strong on the whole, particularly in the powerful ensemble singing. Lee gets standout work from Lynda Gravatt as good, grave church co-founder Essie Belle Johnson; and from Lynda S. Balthrop as sweetly loony Birdie Lee, who witnesses Buddy's death.
But this show is built on a rock -- Debra Tidwell as the all-too-human heroine Laura. She is superb, her voice is heavenly, but her eyes flash with wicked fire. Tidwell's singing matches her solid acting -- especially in the sex-soaked blues of "Love Is On the Way," and the pain- edged "Standing Here Wondering Which Way to Go." Before going off to jail for Buddy's death, Laura makes her confession before the congregation with the searing epiphany "I Have Sinned."
As a member of the fold says, "with that confession she should be out in a year." TAMBOURINES TO GLORY -- At the Studio Theater through February 10.