Good-humored and high-spirited, "The Gospel Truth" does the wise thing -- stands aside and lets its songs take wing -- and so it rises far above the current wavelet of gospel musicals.
At the Warner Theatre through Sunday, this new touring production swiftly sketches the story of a pastor whose comfortable ministry is shaken up by the aggressive tactics of his newly ordained son. But the plot, which is reminiscent of "Mass Appeal," only exists to provide an efficient frame for the soulfully show-biz songs by William (Mickey) Stevenson.
Stevenson, a former Motown vice president who wrote "Dancing in the Street" and other secular hits, applies his Top 40 sensibilities and comes up with a glossy gospel-pop hybrid that raises the spirit and moves the feet.
The 17 songs come in quick succession, exuberantly sung by a cast headed by Johnny Brown, star of TV's "Good Times." Brown plays the stubborn pastor, the Rev. Charles Taylor, and though the role doesn't demand much beyond conveying beaming benevolence and paternal ire, he is an abundantly ingratiating presence, and quite believable as a preacher, too.
Ricke Howell is fine as Vincent, the prodigal son, and Pat Hodges is a pillar of vocal strength as his mother. Peggy Blow plays Vincent's troubled sister Denise, whose role isn't fully fleshed out -- her story takes a sudden and rather maudlin turn toward the end. But Blow is compensated with a smoky torch song ("Love Made a Woman Out of Me") that Billie Holiday might have snapped up, and the actress' refreshingly tart, worldly delivery cuts the saccharine and helps the play over its few preachy patches.
The show is stolen time and again by David Whitfield, who gives church elder Ceodus Jackson a phenomenal gospel vocal technique and a vividly comic persona. Whitfield's brief duet/duel with a singer named B'Anca in "Waitin' " is one of the show's most memorable moments. The animated ensemble is entertaining whether singing or not -- and when its members are singing, which is often, they generate a great deal of celebratory power.
Though it's working with a relatively modest budget, "The Gospel Truth" is a gratifyingly professional production, well lit, nicely costumed, with simple but stylish sets. And that's the truth.
The Gospel Truth, book by William (Mickey) Stevenson and Cliff Roquemore; music and lyrics by William (Mickey) Stevenson. Directed by Cliff Roquemore; sets, Art Johnson; lighting, Shirley Prendergast; costumes, Frank Billeci. With B'Anca, Peggy Blow, Johnny Brown, Dee Dee Denard, Paula Franklin, Pat Hodges, Ricke Howell, Anthony McFarland, Lynda Miles, Tanya Lavette Montgomery, Nathaniel Morris, Kenny Parker, Jessica Smith, Deidra White, David Whitfield, Rubert Williams, Aloma White. At the Warner Theatre through Aug. 23.