In "Meet the Browns," men cheat, women glower and babies don't know who their daddies are. But for all its no-you-didn't! finger-snapping, Tyler Perry's musical comedy about an African American family that gathers to bury its patriarch transcends baseness to deliver messages that would make Bill Cosby proud.
Perry's script, in fact, is so loaded with morally conservative advice to its various characters in crisis that it might as well have been penned by Dr. Laura. "Meet the Browns" begins somewhat unfortunately, with an opening scene offering gags about sagging breasts and gas. This first scene brings the divorced MiLay back to the home of her parents, Sarah and L.B., after the death of MiLay's 107-year-old grandfather. And from here on, Perry reins in the broadness a bit as the extended family is introduced.
Though this production at the Warner Theatre didn't offer a playbill on opening night, the audience had no trouble recognizing the "Meet the Browns" stars. The husband-and-wife team of David and Tamela Mann, known for their roles as Mr. Brown and his wife, Cora, in the previous Perry productions "I Can Do Bad All by Myself," "Madea's Family Reunion" and "Madea's Class Reunion," reprise their old characters with a twist: Instead of playing a couple, David's Leroy Brown here is father to Tamela's Cora, who grew up not knowing him. (Perry self-consciously has the other characters react to this shift with befuddlement when Cora is introduced as Leroy's daughter.)
Pop Brown's death is the least of this family's worries, which include the drunken brashness of L.B. and Leroy's sister, Vera (whose resemblance to Macy Gray sets up a few of the play's laughs); the philandering of Vera's son, Will; the return of MiLay's husband, who apparently left her when their son died; and the burgeoning romance between Cora and a widowed preacher.
Out of the conflicts surface a few common themes, all rooted in old-fashioned values and faith -- strong parenting, spousal devotion, the power of forgiveness, belief in God. "Meet the Browns' " dominant message is the importance of family, and while its ideas about marriage are nearly as strong, they're less absolute: When Will, for example, begs the forgiveness of his wife, Kim, by expressing his love and remorse in a slow-burning R&B ballad -- sounding like Luther Vandross, and, in a parodic moment in which the actor rips off his shirt to reveal insanely cut arms, looking like Usher -- Kim responds with, "It's not enough." But soon enough she's heeding advice about when it's appropriate to forgive and forget.
Will's not the only one who gets to show off his pipes. Perry tempers the moralizing with terrific gospel and blues numbers, belted out by the entire cast, whose strong voices are occasionally spine-tingling. This makes it all the more unfortunate that the production didn't give them credit in a program, though the performers, whose names I don't want to garble, are introduced after the show.
The biggest crowd-pleaser in "Meet the Browns," however, seems to be David Mann's Leroy, whose increasingly loud outfits, dimwit viewpoints and -- in stark contrast -- excellent James Brown imitation consistently elicited roars. And not only from the audience: Mann seems to have been given free rein at the show's closing scene, in which Leroy delivers an extended and often nonsensical eulogy at Pop Brown's funeral. His apparent improvising has several cast members cracking up behind their hankies, a sight that's even more entertaining than Mann's silly songs. The entire scene provides the kind of life-is-good uplift that couldn't be predicted at the start of the show.
Meet the Browns, written and directed by Tyler Perry. Approximately 21/2 hours. Through Sept. 26 at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW. Call 202-397-7328 or visit www.warnertheatre.com.