In a similar way, the new Karamu show Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! is a theatrical version of an empty-headed (and overly exclamation-pointed) PowerPoint presentation. Billed as "a history lesson for the entire family," this bloodless chronological march through the history of gospel music turns the avatars of this compelling musical idiom (Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, et al.) into ciphers on a timeline. And it's a shame, because gospel music deserves a much more thoughtful and involving tribute.
Clearly, all those involved have their hearts in the right place. The writer and director of the show, Otis Sallid, wants to honor those who wrote and performed gospel music over the years. But by trying to encompass so much calendar time, he runs out of performance time -- cutting many songs down to 30-second snippets that don't allow the music to grab hold. Plus, there's virtually no insight into the personalities who have made gospel the transcendent, spiritual force that it is in so many lives.
The uneven 10-person cast does hit some high points and gets the audience shouting their responses. Among the women, who are far better than the men at singing this material, Bernita Ewing shakes the seats with her version of "I Looked Down the Road" and "My Tribute." And Ra-Deon Kirkland soars high to raise goose bumps with "I Know the Lord Will Make a Way" and "Goin' Up Yonder." On the male side, Michael Burns and Eddie B. Sands appear to be having the most fun and at least exude some personality.
But the effect created by much of the music feels oddly muted, either by flaccid arrangements or awkward performances under the guidance of musical director Leonard Burks. Just when you think you're ready for a real hand-clapping, foot-stomping frenzy with "Oh Happy Day," the singers back off and never push the melody to its peak. Sadly, none of the three male singers or the Provisions of God quartet have the pipes to faintly echo the vocal power of gospel groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, or the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.
Sallid's dry narration is further sabotaged by Neal Hodges, who speaks as if he's reading it for the first time, stumbling over some words and ignoring anything resembling pace. Even the costumes by Darryle Johnson, often a highlight at Karamu, here look like early J.C. Penney -- largely a random assortment of drab outfits you'd pass right over on a sale rack.
Here's hoping that Sallid follows his passion for gospel music and retools this show by focusing on the people who made gospel great, and assembling a cast that's consistent in quality from top to bottom.