When Debra Tidwell looks out of place -- sounds out of place -- on a stage, something's wrong.
And something is seriously wrong with "Tambourines to Glory," Langston Hughes' gospel musical, which the Studio Theatre has revived for a run through Feb. 10. Tidwell has long since proved herself as a powerful singer, and although she's somewhat less assured as an actress, she has a presence that sets her off from the crowd. I suppose you might describe it as majesty, laced with a sense of self-irony. Tidwell can immerse herself totally in a number, but she can also pull back, and with an arch of her eyebrows, comment wryly on what she's singing.
"Tambourines," written in the 1950s but not produced until 1963, just isn't her ticket. A rickety, ill-told musical, it focuses on a good-time girl, Sister Laura (Tidwell), who founds a church in Harlem in order to get herself "the best money can buy" -- a mink, a red Caddy, a velvet sofa and bottles of $10 scotch. The enterprise is a roaring success, but along the way Sister Laura falls for the Devil, in the form of a philandering hustler named Buddy (Vincent Brown), who turns her life into pure soap opera and the church into a numbers operation. What starts out seemingly as a fanciful fable about a scam ends up as a lurid, lurching melodrama. "I can't seem to get Buddy out of my life," Sister Laura moans. " . . . I love that man." Not long after, she stabs him to death.
Few actresses, I suspect, could make this tripe palatable. Despite her earnestness, Tidwell isn't one of them. The evening, however, is dotted with more than two dozen gospel songs, mostly by Hughes and Jobe Huntley, and here you would expect Tidwell to shine. She would, too, if with the exception of a few traditional gospel numbers the score weren't so defiantly second-rate and the three-piece offstage orchestra weren't bent on drowning her out. At every turn, Tidwell's gifts are being checkmated. Even her costumes are monstrously unflattering. Although it's a long evening, "Tambourines" turns into a showcase for a hamstrung performer in short order.
The 16 other cast members are not particularly adept at avoiding the cliche's that are built into their roles; in fact, they tend to luxuriate in them. Lynda Grava'tt plays Sister Essie, Laura's friend and partner in soul-saving (except that she's in it for all the good and decent reasons). Gravatt has a look of perpetual suffering on her face that presumably echoes the pain of her swollen feet; I believed neither. As for Brown, he gives in to the stereotypical behavior of the street operator without so much as a protest.
After Arena's rousing "Gospel at Colonus," any gospel musical this season is bound to invite unfavorable comparisons. Still, the Studio performers might be expected to make a more joyful noise than they do. But the exultant church scenes with their yelps of salvation and their shouts of celestial glee are merely overbearing. The production, directed by Fredric Lee, matches the script in clumsiness, while the sets can't seem to make up their mind whether they are stylized or realistic and, consequently, register as unfinished.
One of Sister Laura's money-raising ploys is peddling bottles of holy water from the River Jordan for $1. What the unwitting get is pure Harlem tap water. Still, I can't say the con is any more misleading, frankly, than passing off this broken-down musical as a show for 1985.
TAMBOURINES TO GLORY. By Langston Hughes, directed by Fredric Lee; sets, Kenneth T. Wilson; lighting, Steve Holliday; costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan; musical direction, Ed Rejuney. With Debra Tidwell, Lynda Gra'vatt, Vincent Brown, Paula Davis, Joseph Kelliebrew. At the Studio Theatre thorugh Feb. 10.