The theatrical drought that has plagued Washington of late is over. With the opening of "Elmer Gantry" at Ford's Theatre Saturday night, we have a new musical worth cheering about and rooting for.
It is not yet in perfect shape, which is why some rooting is still in order. But it has a strapping story to tell, a beguiling score and two charismatic leads -- which is more than enough cause for cheering.
Sinclair Lewis' volcanic novel about the cynical preacher and his devouring love for Sharon Falconer, the evangelist with an angel's face and a vixen's ambition, has already inspired one musical adaptation -- "Gantry," which gave up the ghost after a single performance on Broadway 18 years ago. Whatever went wrong back then seems largely to have been avoided by the creative team at Ford's. This "Elmer Gantry" is a lusty work, with the potential for being even more so.
Best of all, the world of the traveling revival meeting and the zealots, both religious and profane, who populate it, is implicitly theatrical. Gantry knows, when he joins up with Sister Sharon's struggling troupe of Bible-thumpers, that if you want to save weary souls, you've first got to lure them into the big top with some razzle-dazzle. There's no business without the show. "Elmer Gantry" is about sinners and saviors coming together in ecstatic union, and it's hard to imagine a more vibrant premise for a musical.
Nor a more timely one. Although the action is set in the Depression, only a hermit will fail to draw the latter-day parallels. All the recent evangelical scandals are prophetically (and eerily) accounted for: Sex at the foot of the altar, the crass manipulation of the devout, the connivance of money-grubbing businessmen and even a million-dollar religious retreat, called "The Garden," that comes complete with tourist cottages. Life not only imitates art; so, it would appear, do Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
"Elmer Gantry" does not attempt to forge new forms. It is content to spin its crackling narrative in the traditional manner, working up suspense and emotions to the point where the songs naturally take over. John Bishop has distilled Lewis' novel to its essentials, and while the musical retains its share of melodramatic incidents, they never seem out of place. A certain luridness is, after all, built into this saga.
Mel Marvin, one of our underappreciated composers, has written the score, which marries the sweet twangs of the county fair to the rolls and swells of the church hymnal. You can also hear the blues percolating up through the night air and, sometimes, the halftime fervor of the small-town football game. Yet for all its variety, the music rarely violates the flavor of Midwest America in the midst of a sad and struggling era. It's lovely.
The lyrics by Bishop and Robert Satuloff are intelligently crafted, plumbing the characters' hearts and minds without calling attention to themselves. Unlike so many musicals these days that flaunt their brio and invention ("Mail" at the Kennedy Center is only the most recent example), "Elmer Gantry" wants only to draw you into a torrid and touching tale. To a large degree, it succeeds.
The production is certainly blessed with two galvanizing leads -- Casey Biggs, as Gantry, and Sharon Scruggs, as Sister Sharon. Stunning performers in their own right, they generate between them an eroticism that could melt a chalice. Biggs has long demonstrated at Arena Stage a rough-hewn masculinity, under which lurks a boyish roguishness. He can go right to the heart of big emotions and, at the same time, project a sense of modesty -- of reticence even -- and never seem to be indulging himself.
As gifted a musical performer as he is an actor, he makes a vivid Gantry, drawing on all the character's contradictions and fusing them into a commanding performance. Here, in a dusty pin-striped suit, is the kid, the cad, the cynic, the romantic and the opportunist who can't escape the feeling (or the pain) of being exploited himself.
Scruggs is equally impressive -- a husky-voiced woman of such mesmerizing beauty that you can understand why the crowds pitch themselves at Sister Sharon's satin-slippered feet. Depending on her mood or the lighting, Scruggs can look like the perfect grade school teacher, or Jean Harlow in a smolder. When she comes out to greet her congregation, her diaphanous white gown floating about her like wisps of cloud, she seems a veritable apparition.
Her performance, too, is anchored in violent contradictions. Sister Sharon is as gutsy as she is ladylike. She casts her eyes to Heaven and her body to the ground. Part of her is a true believer, eager to believe that even the jury-rigged miracles in her tent show are authentic. But another part of her can't shake the squalor of a humiliating childhood and clamors for success at any price.
This is as volatile a pairing of performers as any I've seen all season. "Elmer Gantry" lets them go at each other in love and passion, fury and regret. And when, in "With This Ring," they part ways, you can't help feeling pangs of sorrow. They will never know that together they were a breath away from solace, maybe even salvation of sorts. But we do and the knowledge hurts.
In the supporting cast, the affable Ray DeMattis is as cheery as a clarinet, the instrument he plays in Sister Sharon's band. John Seeman has an unassuming rectitude as a devout preacher who laments the revivalist fever and tries to check its spread. As two gospel singers hired by Gantry to juice up Sister Sharon's show, Queen Esther Marrow and Mary Denise Bentley fulfill their mandate with rafter-raising results. Their second-act "Troubled Blues," sung with Biggs, trembles on the verge of being a show stopper.
That "Elmer Gantry" is already this good suggests that director David Bell has been working hard. But he could work even harder. A lot of legitimate opportunities for flash and drama are slipping by the wayside -- not the least of which is "On the Road," a promising sequence in which Gantry is supposed to be transforming the dowdy tent meeting into a three-ring eye popper.
Changes of place and time are not always negotiated with clarity or imagination, and Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's set, which mixes and matches elements of the train station and the revival tent, doesn't help much. You can sense in this modest production a big-scale, big-budget show champing to get out.
You'll want to see "Elmer Gantry" for what it is -- an involving, often rousing musical. You'll also want to see it for what, with the proper handling, it could be: a smash.
Elmer Gantry, book by John Bishop. Music by Mel Marvin. Lyrics by Robert Satuloff and John Bishop. Directed by David Bell. Scenery, Marjorie Bradley Kellogg; costumes, David Murin; lighting, Pat Collins. With Casey Biggs, Sharon Scruggs, John Almberg, Joe Barrett, Ray DeMattis, Queen Esther Marrow, Mary Denise Bentley, John Seeman. At Ford's Theatre for an indefinite run.