"Tambourines to Glory" is Langston Hughes's 1963 musical fable about a flimflamming pair of Holy Rollers, but what the revival at the Lincoln Theatre preaches most vociferously is the gospel according to Kenny. Director Kenny Leon, based in Atlanta but ever more prominently represented on Broadway -- he directed "A Raisin in the Sun" with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and is staging August Wilson's newest play, "Gem of the Ocean," there this fall -- had the grand idea of organizing a company to present, among other things, classics of the African American stage.
In this initial phase for his troupe, True Colors Theatre, the plan is to produce works in both Atlanta and Washington; the loftier goal is a coast-to-coast profile for the company and a touring schedule that would take it to major cities across the country. This is a most encouraging development, as it holds the potential for filling a gaping hole in the landscape of the arts, a black theater of national stature.
Theater utopians often talk and talk of such ambitions; the marvel is that this director is making a real attempt to follow through. Though the lethally overlong "Tambourines to Glory" may not have been the ideal choice for the launch of such a venture, that it has arrived in Washington at all suggests a seriousness of purpose and creates an occasion for pondering what else Leon has in store.
The allure of "Tambourines" may result from its obscurity. Hughes, who died in 1967, was a prolific poet, playwright, novelist and social commentator. He wrote "Tambourines to Glory" late in his career. And while this might have been a gospel "Guys and Dolls," the show is far too lumbering, the plot far too prosaic, to qualify as musical confection. Set in mid-20th-century Harlem, it tells of the devious doings of Laura Wright Reed (Alexandra Foucard), a bon vivant who, entranced by Aimee Semple McPherson, sets up a street corner church not to save souls but to bilk the faithful. Her unlikely partner in crime, Essie Belle Johnson (Ebony Jo-Ann), is God-fearing and broke and enlists in Laura's schemes so she can obtain the money to bring her daughter Marietta (Jordan Minter) to New York.
The show, which ran briefly on Broadway, was notable for its efforts to expose the musical tradition of black churches to a commercial audience; the cast includes a full gospel choir. The singing remains its chief asset. Composer William Knowles has contributed original compositions for this production, and Leon's cast performs them with the verve one would hope for. At times, however, the acoustics in the Lincoln are out of balance; a small onstage band (keyboard, guitar, bass and drums) too often muffles the soloists.
The less forgivable deficiency is Hughes's ramshackle story. The intent may have been something loose and serviceable, but this is a production that stretches 90 minutes of exposition to nearly three hours. It's as if a child had been dressed for the beach in eight layers. Nothing in "Tambourines" is to be taken too seriously; the feel-good experience that Hughes was after is summed up in the words of Buddy Lomax (Kevyn Morrow), the stand-in for the Devil: "I never win, but I have a hell of a good time trying!" If Hughes's ear for comedy were more finely calibrated here, Lomax's observation might have rung truer.
Morrow, in fact, delivers one of the more satisfying performances; his Buddy, outfitted in ever flashier threads, is expertly serpentine. Ebony Jo-Ann is a suitably brassy Essie, even if the character's motivations for sticking with Laura are hard to fathom. As Laura, Foucard has the arduous task of evoking sympathy for a thief. Perversely, Hughes offers little foundation for Laura's immoral treatment of her flock, and the congregation's sheeplike willingness to forgive her without a word of complaint is a bit much. Foucard possesses a pretty voice, but the character proves impossible to sustain. You pray for Laura's comeuppance about an hour before it comes.
Margo Moorer, on the other hand, has unqualified success with Birdie Lee, a spirited member of Laura's Tambourine Temple congregation. It's one of those featured roles in musicals in which the strait-laced lady sheds her inhibitions in song, and Moorer does so exuberantly in "I'm Gonna Testify." Keith A. Hale, as Marietta's love interest, C.J., is an actor of elementary skill, but his dulcet baritone is perfect for the alluring "Moon Outside My Window."
Leon may have too much reverence for Hughes's work. Many of the scenes are static, particularly two extended church services, one in each act, that cry out for a red pencil, and the physical confrontations are inadequately worked out. The city scenery by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg is dingy and cramped on the Lincoln stage: if it's truly a fable, why must it look a dreary kitchen-sink drama?
"Tambourines to Glory" will appeal most to those with a curiosity about the roots of the gospel musical or a devotion to the work of Hughes. It may be a bit of a slow start for True Colors in Washington. Still, keep your fingers crossed that it is some kind of a start.
Tambourines to Glory, by Langston Hughes. Directed by Kenny Leon. Choreography, Patdro Harris; composer and music director, William Knowles; costumes, Susan E. Mickey; lighting, Christian Epps; sound, Karin Graybash. With Willa Bost, Karen Davis, Kinnik, Eric Moore, Eugene H. Russell IV, Laparee Young. Approximately 2 hours 50 minutes. Through Sunday at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Call 202-397-7328 or visit www.truecolorstheatrecompany.com.